Friday, September 10, 2010

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Multiple reviews have now picked up on the placement of Tolstoy's War and Peace in Jonathan Franzen's new novel. The two reviewers I linked to in fact make this allusion into a sort of master-code for the novel, titling their coverage "Peace and War" and "The Tolstoy of the Internet Era." This is absurd not only because comparison of this sort is the laziest and least valuable form of criticism, but also because the allusion on which hangs this invidious comparison is in fact rather slight. Arguably, a reference to a now quite obscure Greek film, O drakos, or The Fiend of Athens, is of much more considerable relevance to the book's plot.

It's true, Patty Berglund does read the novel while she is at something of a crossroads in her adult life and she does identify with Natasha, caught between two men: "The autobiographer [Patty is writing a third-person autobiography] wonders if things might have gone differently if she hadn't reached the very pages in which Natasha Rostov, who was obviously meant for the goofy and good Pierre, falls in love with his great cool friend Prince Andrei. Patty had not seen this coming. Pierre's loss unfolded, as she read it, like a catastrophe in slow motion. Things probably would not have gone any differently, but the effect those pages had on her, their pertinence, was almost psychedelic" (166).

This pertinence is deceptive, even within Franzen's own terms. Later, Patty gives a more complete recapitulation of Natasha's story which now fits her own quite imperfectly: "Natasha had promised herself to Andrei but then was corrupted by the wicked Anatole, and Andrei went off in despair to get himself mortally wounded in battle, surviving only long enough to be nursed by Natasha and forgive her, whereupon excellent old Pierre, who had done some growing up and deep thinking as a prisoner of war, stepped forward to present himself as a consolation prize; and lots of babies followed" (175).

I don't know whether Franzen means for this allusion to War and Peace to be a red herring of sorts or not, the kind of thing which is designed to catch a critic who is on a hunt for a hook to bite down on, for something portentous to compare the year's biggest novel to. Franzen does preface Patty's later recounting of Natasha's story with the comment, "And she became a better reader. At first in desperate escapism, later in search of help." Patty's first connection to War and Peace is escapist; she uses it to justify sleeping with the Andrei character, Richard, literally making life resemble art. Later, Patty becomes a better reader by accepting that the analogy between Tolstoy and her life is imperfect and not to be lived through, just to be consulted for truth or "help."

This, in a nutshell, is in fact Franzen's own ethics of reading, at least as they are articulated in the Harper's essay: Franzen's own autobiographic narrative there is a similar story of recognizing that the imperfect fit between life and art is the real source of its power—just as long as we recognize that art is not meant to make a perfect fit, is not meant to act directly as a model, that we're not supposed to act like characters. Understanding characters helps us understand ourselves, yes, but we err when that understanding is of ourselves-as-characters. And the fact that War and Peace is in fact only mentioned five times in the novel—and four of those instances within twenty pages—suggests that this episode similarly is not meant to be so fundamental to our understanding of the novel: not a code or a key but a symptom, a single instance of a leitmotiv at most. To do more with War and Peace or Tolstoy is merely to fetishize allusion for its own sake—exactly the type of conflation of art and life that Franzen is (at least in my reading) trying to guard against.

Yet there is, perhaps, something we can recover from this comparison between Franzen and Tolstoy: consider the bald singularity of Franzen's title relative to Tolstoy's: "Freedom." "War and Peace." For Franzen, "freedom" is already its own antithesis; freedom is the name of a dialectic, not a state or event.

That's a common story, particularly in the libertarian strain it takes when trying to negotiate the harm principle: you're free to do as you like as long as your actions don't hurt anyone. (Amelia Atlas, whose excellent blog I recently discovered, has a fascinating discussion of this engagement with political philosophy in the novel.) Exercising freedom completely freely always leads to a variety of unfreedom: one inevitably becomes so committed to one's own process of self-liberation that one cannot change course: Freedom becomes a demand external to the self, no longer a healthy intrinsic desire. Some version of this narrative fills the space between (at least every Boomer if not) every person and his morning reflection.

What is missing from this story is the other thing filling that space: self-pity. Self-pity would not have made a good conjunctive term for the title ("Freedom and Self-Pity" would get nixed quickly, I imagine, by the editors), but it is at least equal to freedom in thematic weight in the book1, although I would not necessarily assume that Franzen sees it in those terms. Self-pity is not, after all, a perfect antithesis of freedom, at least not in a traditional understanding of the term. It functions rather something like an enzyme or reagent, corroding the feeling of freedom into the belief that one is unfree, catalyzing that unfreedom into a desire for some other form of freedom. Self-pity acts when one realizes that the freedoms one has worked toward have merely been the raw materials of a more complicated set of confinements: when, to be a little more specific and more germane to Franzen's novel, one's rebellion against one's parents ends up shaping the terms of one's own errors in child-rearing or marital life or career.2 In the bluntest statement of this theme, Patty querulously comments, "The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free" (181). A few pages later she comes across a small monument on the Swarthmore campus engraved with the words "USE WELL THY FREEDOM." (Franzen, a Swarthmore graduate, actually gets one of the details about this carving wrong: he attributes it to the Class of 1920, but as you can see from the linked picture, it was given by the Class of 1927.)

Because of these lines and many others like them, the heavy-handedness of Franzen's novel has been the aspect most frequently used to suggest that, "yeah, it's pretty good, but," which is essentially the tone of Ron Charles's hilarious video review. And it is quite valid to complain about the way that Franzen insults his readers with the incredible obviousness of the "freedom" theme, particularly when he begins sloppily to equate3 freedom with unchecked growth (361-362); other, healthier traditions of freedom are ignored or subordinated.

But the heavy-handedness of the freedom theme seems connected to the other theme I have tried to outline; in fact, I'm compelled to ask: Isn't portentousness a writer's equivalent of self-pity? That is, if self-pity is what keeps our dissatisfactions with the idea and experience of freedom from completely curdling into bitterness and misanthropy (two outcomes that Franzen identifies as very real possibilities), then isn't portentousness also a kind of stopgap for preventing our dissatisfaction with the basic banality of words and ideas from turning into a Beckettian minimalism or a Jamesian super-refined obliquity? In plainer words, isn't heavy-handedness what keeps the realist novel "real"? Repetitions of thematic keywords, overdetermined allusions to meaningful books or films or events, plausible impossibilities, extraordinary coincidences, "meet-cutes," etc.—it is Franzen's argument that they are necessary to hold art in a place where we may be tempted to escape but ultimately where we choose to return for help.

Franzen has two of his characters attend a Bright Eyes concert; Walter, Patty's husband, and Richard, her lover and Walter's best friend, have the following exchange after the show:
"A few too many songs about adolescent soap operas."
"They're all about belief," Walter said, "The new record's this incredible kind of pantheistic effort to keep believing in something in a world full of death. Oberst [the boy genius behind Bright Eyes] works the word 'lift' into every song. That's the name of the record, Lifted. It's like religion without the bullshit of religious dogma" (370).
It's almost too easy to see Franzen's signature here, a sort of excuse and rationale for the portentousness: we need this word "freedom," just as we need to be lifted by hope. (At any rate, it is extremely likely that Franzen would not be scared off by Conor Oberst's own reputation for breathtaking self-pity or for heavy-handedness.)4

It is this confidence, this assuredness in the continued necessity of realism that accounts for Franzen's commercial and critical successes; he is, along with only a very few other writers at work today, capable of convincing his audience that he writes "serious" fiction in the nineteenth-century sense of that word: not just fiction meant to be read by smart people, which is what "serious" so often means today, but solid bourgeois fiction that one can trust to talk about adult things (sex and business, mostly) without blushing but also without prurience or disproportionate avidity. Franzen fits pretty well the quote that I cited a few days ago from William Dean Howells about the role of the novelist in society:
They require of a novelist whom they respect unquestionable proof of his seriousness, if he proposes to deal with certain phases of life; they require a sort of scientific decorum. He can no longer expect to be received on the ground of entertainment only; he assumes a higher function, something like that of a physician or a priest, and they expect him to be bound by laws as sacred as those of such professions; they hold him solemnly pledged not to betray them or abuse their confidence. If he will accept the conditions, they give him their confidence, and he may then treat to his greater honor, and not at all to his disadvantage, of such experiences, such relations of men and women…
It is probably inevitable that having written this, I will be assumed to be myself defending this form of "serious" fiction, and to be lauding Franzen. But I'm ambivalent about Franzen's novel (it's worth reading), and I think realism can have and should have a wider compass than the one Franzen (or Howells) is likely to give it. I think that those who are ready to scorn Franzen for being what he is are generally impatient and narrow, but anyone who is willing to give Franzen more than what he's asking for (which is, I think, the case with the absurdly grandiose plaudits being bestowed upon this book) needs a bracing splash of very cold water. Franzen is complicit in this irrational exuberance, no doubt, but the novel itself is much, much more modest than anything the majority of his reviewers, blurbers, and marketers have put into circulation.

1 It is an incredibly significant theme for everyone but the one non-white character—Lalitha—whom Franzen draws as too ingenuous and submissive to be subject to something as whitely complex as self-pity; his idea of adding depth to this representative of the non-Western world is making her an aggressive driver. Srsly.
2 One of the more interesting (to me) examples that Franzen gives of this basic structure is geographical: "Patty, with a frozen smile, sat looking at the glamorous and plutocratic parties at other tables in the restaurant's lovely discreet light. There was, of course, nowhere better in the world to be than New York City. This fact was the foundation of her family's satisfaction with itself, the platform from which all else could be ridiculed, the collateral of adult sophistication that bought them the right to behave like children. To be Patty and sitting in that SoHo restaurant was to confront a force she had not the slightest chance of competing with. Her family had claimed New York and was never going to budge. Simply never coming here again—just forgetting that restaurant scenes like this even existed—was her only option" (123).
3 By the way, what is Franzen's deal with splitting as many infinitives as he can? Is this some kind of compositional principle? Does he have some sort of vendetta against pedants? It was maddening to me.
4 It is interesting to compare the well-remarked upon heavy-handedness of Freedom with comments Franzen made last year about the social novel: "I couldn’t smoke enough cigarettes in a day to interest myself in using a novel to illustrate points I already understood very well. I think, although he is extremely kind and erudite and a lovely person, Richard Powers’s books are good examples of what happens when you try to illustrate a social reality that’s already known to you." More here.

Edit: Charles Baxter has another Tolstoy comparison in the NYRB: "Franzen, judging from the evidence of this novel, doesn’t want to be Jane Austen; he wants to be Tolstoy." Maybe this idea of the Tolstoyan ambitions of Freedom went out with the promotional materials/ARCs?


Amelia Atlas said...

Thanks for the mention! I really love the idea of freedom as its own dialectic... I hadn't considered it in those terms. Perhaps Franzen should have gone with the Zweigian "Beware of Freedom." (You're right -- "self-pity" isn't quite as catchy.)

bibliofreak said...

Thanks for an intelligent and well-explained article. I'm still trying to get my head around Freedom (, but it's refreshing to read such a fullsome and competent post.