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His Glory and His Curse’


by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 562 pp., $28.00
Cerulean wood warblers; illustration by John James Audubon

In his essay “Mr. Difficult,” Jonathan Franzen reports with a certain glum satisfaction that following the publication in 2001 of his third novel, The Corrections, he began to receive large quantities of angry mail. Some of the anger was sociological. “Who is it you are writing for? It surely could not be the average person who just enjoys a good read.” And some of it was just plain personal. One reader accused Franzen of being “a pompous snob, and a real ass-hole.”1

Franzen’s novel spent twenty-nine weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and won the 2001 National Book Award. But no general readerly consensus seemed to exist concerning the book’s merits. The novel had hit a nerve, and it polarized its readers into two camps: those who hated it with particular venom, and those who felt it was a fine and beautiful book. (I was among the latter.) The author’s own ambivalence about the mass media didn’t help matters. After saying some indiscreet words about the Oprah Winfrey imprimatur on his novel’s book jacket, Franzen was disinvited from appearing on her show. It was a scandal, for a week or two.

The disagreements haven’t gone away. In his recent Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, David Shields denounces The Corrections without having read it: “I couldn’t read that book if my life depended on it,” he asserts. For him, Franzen’s novel—sight unseen—exemplifies “the big, blockbuster novel by middle-of-the-road writers, the run-of-the-mill four-hundred-page page-turner.”2 Shields claims that he is amazed that people still want to read such fiction. Oddly, what Shields seems to distrust about Franzen’s work (its mass appeal, its middleness) is exactly what the author’s enraged readers claimed The Corrections lacked. Was it still possible for a mass-audience novel to be artistically refined and thematically important? On this point there was no agreement because there hasn’t been any for decades.

For the most part Franzen writes as if literary modernism and experimental postmodernism had never occurred. All four of his novels, including the new one, are somewhat loose and baggy, and they contain an easygoing and warm attention to the complexities of human character. Reality-as-given is for these books an endlessly renewable resource. There is no “relentless investigation into the possibilities of form,” to use a phrase from Gilbert Sorrentino to describe the avant-garde.3 However, Franzen’s books do address sizable cultural events. Strong Motion is in the honorable category of eco-catastrophe fiction. The Corrections has several subplots having to do with clinical depression, biotechnology, and the recapitalization of Eastern Europe. The subplots of Freedom include species extinction, mountaintop removal used in West Virginia coal mining, overpopulation, and private-sector subcontracts for the Iraq war. The personal is invariably sutured to the social, but the personal—the portrait of Enid Lambert, the mother in The Corrections, for example—is what generally remains most memorable in these books.

Franzen is a writer of great patience. This is his glory and his curse. Like Arnold Bennett and any number of other nineteenth-century English and Russian novelists, he has the voluptuary’s interest in physical details, and he takes his time in describing them. When a character enters a room, the reader will usually be given all its particulars:

The floors were spongily carpeted and sloped perceptibly toward the creek in back. In the living/dining area was a hubcap-sized, extensively crenellated ceramic ashtray within easy reach of the davenport where Gene Berglund had read his fishing and hunting magazines and watched whatever programming the motel’s antenna (rigged, as she saw the next morning, to the top of a decapitated pine tree behind the septic field) was able to pull down from stations in the Twin Cities and Duluth.

Readers like David Shields whose time sense is more irritably prone to aesthetic boredom have found Franzen’s novels to be too slow, too filled with experiences, to reflect contemporary life. This impatience with realism’s dutiful details can be imagined as a late echo of Virginia Woolf’s famous attack on Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale in 1919:

If we fasten, then, one label on all these books, on which is one word, materialists, we mean by it that they write of unimportant things; that they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.4

Things, that is, take up the space that the spirit should occupy, and the result is dulling in its attentiveness to objects that do not signify. Franzen, like most novelists, wants the physical world and the spirit, and in a way he gets the whole package. But in his new novel, the material world does its best to crowd out and to extinguish the spirit, depicted here as an almost-extinct species of bird, the cerulean warbler. It survives, but just barely.

Freedom begins with an odd rhetorical flourish of late-Victorian pastiche:

The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally—he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now—but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times.

This remarkably ugly sentence, confounding in its quadruple negatives, signals that the book to follow will be about hypocrisy and its attendant rhetoric. Of course Walter and Patty Berglund still mean something to Ramsey Hill. Why else would the “urban gentry” bother to read about them in The New York Times? But we have been warned. The sentence is a syntactical trap. Like many others to follow, its spring consists of one spurious denial followed by another.

As was the case in The Corrections, Freedom’s central social unit is the family. This family consists of Walter Berglund and his wife, Patty Emerson; their son, Joey (they have a daughter also, who is a minor player); and their closest friend, Richard Katz, a musician. Also like The Corrections, this novel divides itself toward two sets of temptations: love’s passions on one side, and worldly power on the other. I use the word “temptations” here advisedly because Freedom operates as a kind of morality play in which all the major players are drawn toward actions they should not perform and objects they either cannot or should not possess.

Walter Berglund, the “nicest guy in Minnesota,” comes from a semirural background and possesses all the attributes of a caretaker; he is a decent, kind, thoughtful man, and the adjectives could go on: devoted, reliable, and conscientious among them. Patty calls him “a genuinely nice person,” though she does not intend this statement as a compliment. (In two instances Walter is juxtaposed to Tolstoy’s Pierre Bezúkhov, another amiable and good-hearted stumblebum.) The great challenge for any novelist is to make the seemingly bland virtues of a good person interesting by testing them properly, and Franzen initially manages to do so by putting Walter in the company of Richard Katz, his “self-absorbed, addiction-prone, unreliable, street-smart” Macalester College roommate, who serves as the third part of this book’s initial love triangle.

Walter’s exasperating goodness does not inspire passion in women. Niceness alone rarely does. One of the novel’s central plotlines has to do with Walter’s courtship of Patty, and Patty’s struggles to fall in love with and to stay married to this paragon. The addiction-prone bad-boy musician Richard Katz is the one she truly wants, of course. In her more despairing moments, she considers sex with Walter to be “boring and pointless,” and her attitude toward him mixes pity and condescension in about equal measure:

Poor Walter [Patty thinks]. First he’d set aside his acting and filmmaking dreams out of a sense of financial obligation to his parents, and then no sooner had his dad set him free by dying than he teamed up with Patty and set aside his planet-saving aspirations and went to work for 3M, so that Patty could have her excellent old house and stay home with the babies.

Renouncing his own desires, Walter falls victim to the same delusion that Gabriel Conroy suffers from in James Joyce’s “The Dead”: the belief that someone will love you passionately for being reliable and conscientious. As he and Patty discover, that isn’t how passionate love works. Walter’s blindness on this point, treated as a midwestern affliction, has greater consequences later on in the book once he meets a woman who truly loves him. When Patty inevitably betrays Walter with Richard Katz, to whom she has always been attracted, she comes to believe that she did so almost in spite of herself, while asleep:

That she could say all this, and not only say it but remember it very clearly afterward, does admittedly cast doubt on the authenticity of her sleep state. But the autobiographer is adamant in her insistence that she was not awake at the moment of betraying Walter and feeling his friend split her open.

Note how deniability functions here. Indeed, this section of Freedom, titled “Mistakes Were Made,” echoing the quasi-confessional passive-voice cliché of public rhetoric in our country’s recent history, moves the story gradually out of the personal into the political. Franzen takes very seriously the kind of unhappiness in a marriage that results when, to quote Auden, “equal affection cannot be.”5 For all her good intentions, Patty’s unequal affection inevitably pulls her toward the dark side, although “all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable.” Her marriage, to use a phrase employed later in the book in another (political) context, is a noble lie, and the noble lie serves as the pivot point around which almost everything in Freedom turns.

The opening two hundred pages of Freedom give us the story of this marriage and Patty’s betrayal of it, first in an omniscient-narrator summary, then in the form of a third-person autobiography written by Patty at the suggestion of her therapist. The Minneapolis–St. Paul settings are depicted here with great accuracy and with no authorial condescension toward midwesterners (“yokels of questionable intelligence,” as Patty’s offstage Westchester relatives think of them) or any whiff of pastoralism of the Lake Wobegon variety. The minor characters—Eliza, who is Patty’s crazed heroin-addicted roommate, and Richard Katz—are pleasantly sleazy and provide the sort of colorful vices that Patty and Walter lack. Patty and Walter’s courtship and marriage are pictured with great sympathy and weightiness, as if whom one loves still constitutes one’s fate.

At times, these opening pages come off as a brilliant hybridization of a Jane Austen and a D.H. Lawrence novel. They are written with the conviction that the novel of love isn’t dead after all. The style is trenchantly witty and observant, and the reader is likely to forget that Patty (“not actually dumb but relatively dumber” than her siblings) hardly seems capable of writing the Franzenian sentences with which her autobiography is speckled, such as: “There’s a hazardous sadness to the first sounds of someone else’s work in the morning; it’s as if stillness experiences pain in being broken.” This is a sentence written by a former Big Ten basketball player who is now a Minnesota housewife? Well, okay, sure, why not?

  1. 1

    Mr. Difficult,” in How to Be Alone (Picador, 2002), p. 239.

  2. 2

    Knopf, 2010, p. 199.

  3. 3

    Gilbert Sorrentino, Something Said (North Point Press, 1984), p. 264.

  4. 4

    Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader: First Series (Harcourt, 1925, 1984), p. 148.

  5. 5

    The More Loving One,” Selected Poems (Vintage, 1979), p. 237.

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