Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Freedom from Freedom

At last I've finished Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's latest book. Although I went into the thing quite willingly - and, initially, even found that I enjoyed it - about a third of the way through I began to wish I'd never started and by the end all I wanted was escape. I'd been trapped with Franzen's collection of fairly charmless characters for far too long.

The book opens with a 26-page description of Walter and Patty Berglund, a couple who are gentrifying pioneers of a suburb of St Paul. Whoever is writing this section doesn't seem to like the Berglunds very much and also appears to have access to the private conversations of a neighbourhood family called the Paulsens, who don't seem keen on the Berglunds either. It is Mrs Paulsen who ends this section (and having served her narrative purpose, disappears, together with her husband, from any further participation in the book), summing up the Berglunds with the comment, "I don't think they've figured out yet how to live."

 In the next section the story is taken up by Patty Berglund herself. Through the device of an analyst's suggestion that she write her life as a creative writing project, she tells us about her childhood, her family and how she met Walter, with "his unstoppable blush", and his friend Richard Katz. She also leads us off into the story of her intense friendship with a character called Eliza, who is vividly evoked, has several intriguing characteristics, but vanishes after about page 89.

At the end of 160 or so pages, Patty begins to run out of steam – or the structural difficulties associated with retaining her as narrator start to dawn on Franzen. Her memoir is shut down and she is replaced by an old-fashioned anonymous omniscient narrator, who shifts the focus onto Richard Katz, before moving on to Patty's son Joey - who has until this point been only a secondary character - and then to Walter Berglund and the events of his life. We alternate between these three characters - with a brief excursion into the life of Walter's father from pages 443 to 457 - until page 501, when we return to Patty Berglund's creative writing project. That runs for almost forty pages and then, for the final twenty pages, Franzen – with the help of someone called Linda, who fulfils much the same function as the Paulsens in the first section – attempts to tidy up loose ends.

The odd thing about Franzen's writing is that it is, to begin with, so compulsively readable. I found myself chomping through the early pages of Freedom, eager for more and more. Sadly though, despite the initial excitement, quite quickly I began to feel sated, as if I'd been eating hot chips or sweets: at first, they seem gorgeous and I can't get enough; I gobble them down in handfuls, stuffing them into my mouth in a greedy frenzy; before long though, it begins to dawn on me that they aren't really very satisfying; not long after, it occurs to me that they aren't even particularly nice.

But perhaps comparing the effect of Franzen's prose with the sensation of eating lollies is to choose an unfairly plebeian analogy. After all Franzen did refuse to be included on Oprah Winfrey's reading scheme. He might prefer to be associated with the effects of a more sophisticated pleasure. Certainly the description his character Richard Katz gives of the effects that cocaine has on him pretty much mirrors the effect that extended exposure to Franzen's prose has on me:

" ... he remembered it as fantastic and unbeatable and craved it, but as soon as he was on it again he remembered that it wasn't fantastic at all, it was sterile and empty: neuro-mechanistic, death-flavoured" .

I should point out that Franzen does not lack intelligence. In fact, he provides plenty of very clever insights. Here he skewers the preoccupations of anxious middle-class gentrifiers:

“In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops inactually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else's children's sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it. There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighbourhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did your 240 sometimes not go into overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button? Was it better to offer panhandlers food, or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning? Had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer?”

Here, in his description of Patty's atttitude to Joey, he nails a dangerous but increasingly prevalent approach to motherhood:

“... if she'd been honest with herself, what she really wanted was for Joey to be delighted by her ... Walter had ruined her friendship with her son ... by being her husband, by claiming her for the grownup side, Walter had made Joey believe that Patty was in the enemy camp."

Here, with equal accuracy he portrays the same relationship from Joey's point of view:

It was "as if she was speaking some sophisticated but dying aboriginal language which it was up to the younger generation (ie Joey) to either perpetuate or be responsible for the death of ... there was her, and then there was the rest of the world, and by the very way she chose to speak to him she was reproaching him for placing his allegiance with the rest of the world."

Unfortunately Franzen is not so strong when it comes to characterisation. His protagonists are, in fact, bafflingly inconsistent. Walter, for instance, is portrayed as unusually generous, warm and friendly. "Not knowing Walter yet, Patty had no idea how unusual it was that he returned this greeting with a cold nod rather than a friendly midwestern smile" we are told when we first meet him. We then discover that he is so kind that he has turned down an Ivy League scholarship, in order to go to university near enough to home to be able to help his mother and also that he "quickly endeared himself to [Patty's] ... friends with his niceness. Her homelier friends appreciated how much more intently he listened to them than all the guys who couldn't see past their looks, and Cathy Schmidt, her brightest friend, declared Walter smart enough to be on the Supreme Court. It was a novelty ... to have a guy in their midst who everybody felt so natural and relaxed around, a guy who could hang out in the lounge during study breaks and be one of the girls." Then abruptly, on page 290, without any explanation beyond a page heading announcing “The Nice Man's Anger” he is presented as in a state of consuming, almost perpetual rage:

"Walter had come to prefer the anxiety of being her passenger to the judgmental anger that consumed him when he was at the wheel - the seemingly inescapable sense that, of all the drivers on the road, only he was travelling at exactly the right speed, only he was striking an appropriate balance between too punctiliously obeying traffic rules and too dangerously flouting them. In the last two years, he'd spent a lot of angry hours on the roads of West Virginia, tailgating the idiotic slowpokes and then slowing down himself to punish the rude tailgaters ..."

We have to simply accept the statement a few pages later that Walter knows "a thing or two about omnidirectional anger", although nothing in the plot has explained how he has gone from being a gentle blusher to a raging fury.

Patty is equally erratic. She develops from being "...one of those miserable adolescents so angry at her parents that she needed to join a cult where she could be nicer and friendlier and more generous and subservient than she could bring herself to be at home any more" into someone who can see "something poignant or even admirable in [her mother]". Such a development is entirely possible, but we have not been shown by what process she arrives at this point. This is partly because, despite the fact that much of the book is supposed to be written by Patty, we are very rarely allowed to view her except within the perspective of her relationship with Walter and/or Richard Katz. Her existence seems to be dependent on being attached to 
one or other of these men.

She does tell Walter early on, "There's something wrong with me. I love all my other friends, but I feel like there's always a wall between us. Like they're all one kind of person and I'm another kind of person. More competitive and selfish. Less good, basically. Somehow I always end up feeling like I'm pretending when I'm around them," and we do know that she was raped when still a teenager, which may give her more reason to behave oddly than most. However, we are regularly told she is intelligent - "She's so smart", her daughter says; "She didn't seem to be very good at living her life, but it wasn't because she was stupid. Almost the opposite somehow," her son observes – and yet her behaviour never demonstrates that she is bright at all. While she does express a kind of head-screwed-on cynicism at one point - "Given what we know about the way people really are. Selfish and shortsighted and egotistical and needy" she says suddenly – the naivety of her behaviour towards her friend Eliza would have to be judged as pretty close to idiotic. On top of this, the fact that she considers having "breast-augmentation" calls into question any claims about her bulging brains, not to mention the fact that her one consistent trait throughout the novel is a complete failure of imagination about the choices available to her: she seems incapable of thinking beyond whether she wants Walter or Richard or Walter or Richard or Walter or Richard; reading Proust in the original doesn't seem to occur to her as an alternative and nor does anything else.

Richard Katz is even less solidly written. We are told by Walter that he has had a rough family background:

" ...his mom ran away when he was little, and became a religious nut. His dad was a postal worker and a drinker who got lung cancer when Richard was in high school. Richard took care of him until he died. He's a very loyal person, although maybe not so much with women”.

For much of the book the loyalty Walter describes does seem to exist. “Richard ...tired of girls so quickly and always ended up kicking them to the curb; he always came back to Walter, whom he didn't get tired of” we are told. "Katz couldn't have said exactly why Walter mattered to him. No doubt part of it was simply an accident of grandfathering: of forming an attachment at an impressionable age, before the contours of his personality were fully set ... No other man had warmed Katz's loins the way the sight of Walter did after long absence. These groinal heatings were no more about literal sex, no more homo, than the hard-ons he got from a long-anticipated first snort of blow …"

In the light of these statements, what are we to make of his decision to betray Walter and cause him pain? His change of character is never sufficiently explained. The way that he casually leaves Patty's account of her life out for Walter to see, thus deliberately shattering his friend's illusions about his own life makes no more sense than his sudden and brief preoccupation with death:

"Katz felt very, very tired ... To die would the cleanest cutting of his connection to the thing - the girl's idea of Richard Katz - that was burdening him. Away to the southwest of where they were standing stood the massive Eisenhower-era utility building that marred the nineteenth-century architectural vistas of almost every Tribecan loftdweller. Once upon a time, the building had offended Katz's urban aesthetic, but now it pleased hm by offending the urban aesthetic of the millionnaires who'd taken over the neighborhood. It looked like death over the excellent lives being lived down here; it had become something of a friend of his."

Wherever the hell this mood comes from, it doesn't appear again. One ends up having to conclude that Katz is being used as a pawn – in his behaviour towards Walter he is jigging up the sluggish plot; in his sudden world weariness, he is merely a mouthpiece for something Franzen felt like shoving into the text.

Joey, Walter and Patty's son, is equally inconsistent. When we first meet him he is a feckless youth, who moves in with the rednecks next door and appears to enjoy playing video games and pool and listening to loud music, having rejected all the middle-class preoccupations of his own family. We are given no hint that he has any intellectual inclinations and yet on page 270 he is described as "sounding to himself like one of Socrates's young interlocutors, whose lines of dialogue, on page after page, consisted of variations on "Yes, unquestionably" and "Undoubtedly it must be so." When did Joey read Socrates, we wonder.

Again, while he is not without a clear eyed kind of unromantic insight –

“In the days after 9/11, everything suddenly seemed extremely stupid to Joey. It was stupid that a “Vigil of Concern” was held for no conceivable practical reason, it was stupid that people kept watching the same disaster footage over and over, it was stupid that the Chi Phi boys hung a banner of “support” from their house, it was stupid that the football game against Penn State was cancelled, it was stupid that so many kids left Grounds to be with their families (and it was stupid that everybody at Virginia said “Grounds” instead of “campus”). The four liberal kids on Joey's hall had endless stupid arguments with the twenty conservative kids, as if anybody cared what a bunch of eighteen-year-olds thought about the Middle East … there was stupid applause when a vanful of upperclassmen solemnly departed for New York to give succour to the Ground Zero workers, as if there weren't enough people in New York to do the job”

- he is by no means a philosopher. It is therefore almost disturbing when, from time to time, his character morphs without warning into someone who lives on a different level of spirituality entirely and starts to think about "his soul, his familiar personal self,” recognising all of a sudden that “... he was alone with his body; and since, strangely, he was his body, this meant he was entirely alone."

The minor female characters in the novel demonstrate even more clearly how poor Franzen's skills at creating character are. I have rarely come across such badly written creatures in any book. Joey's girlfriend Connie is particularly shocking – it is hard to understand how any decent editor could have allowed a cypher such as this anywhere near the inside of a book cover. I believe she may be meant to represent steadfast love, but she can only really be understood as some kind of warped Franzen fantasy. She is completely passive, devoted to Joey despite unspeakable treatment, submitting to his every demand without any protest and only a small amount of 'self-harm'.

Joey's sister Jessica is scarcely more authentic and Patty's sisters are just grotesque cartoons. The Indian assistant, Lalitha, is so impossible that in the end even Franzen takes fright and kills her off before the whole rickety contraption that is his novel collapses under the weight of implausibility.

And talking of implausibility, there is Franzen's dialogue. It seems to me that he has a complete tin ear:

“Seriously, Walter. That kind of man is very primitive. All he has is dignity and self-control and attitude. He only has one little thing, while you have everything else.”
But the thing he has is what the world wants,” Walter said. “You've read all the Nexis stuff on him, you know what I'm talking about. The world doesn't reward ideas or emotions, it rewards integrity and coolness. And that's why I don't trust him. He's got the game set up so he's always going to win. In private, he may think he admires what we're doing, but he's never going to admit it in public, because he has to maintain his attitude, because that's what the world wants, and he knows it.”
Yes, but that's why it's so great that he'll be working with us. I don't want you to be cool, I don't like a cool man. I like a man like you.”
“OK. Sure. It's your life. But how about a smaller piece of the action? The way I read the specs, the Polish Pladsky A10 is gonna do just fine. They're not in production anymore, but there's fleets of 'em standing around military bases in Hungary and Bulgaria. Also somewhere in South America, which doesn't help me. But I'm gonna hire drivers in Eastern Europe, convoy the trucks across Turkey, and deliver 'em in Kirkuk. That's going to tie me up for God knows how long and there's also a nine-hundred-K subcontract for spare parts. You think you could handle the spare parts as a sub sub?”
“I don't know anything about truck parts.”
“Neither do I. But Pladsky built a good twenty thousand A10s, back in the day. There've gotta be tons of parts out there. All you gotta do is track 'em down, crate 'em up, ship 'em out. Put in three hundred K, take out nine hundred six months later. That's an eminently reasonable markup, given the circumstances. My impression is that's a low-end markup in procurement. No eyebrows will be raised. You think you can get your hands on three hundred K?”
“I can hardly get my hands on lunch money,” Joey said. “What with tuition and so forth.”
Veronica laughed. “My talents don't seem to be the kind the world's interested in. That's why it's better if I can exercise them by myself. I really just want to be left alone, Patty. That's all I'm asking at this point. To be left alone. Abigail's the one who doesn't want Uncle Jim and Uncle Dudley to get anything. I don't really care as long as I can pay my rent.”
“That's not what Joyce says. She says you don't want them getting anything either.”
“I'm only trying to help Abigail get what she wants. She wants to start her own female comedy troupe and take it to Europe, where people will appreciate her. She wants to live in Rome and be revered.”.

Others may disagree but I cannot persuade myself that any of those conversations could ever have taken place between genuine flesh and blood human beings in anything resembling the real world.

Yet there is no doubt that it is in the real world that the book is firmly set. Indeed recent US politics – the Iraq war in particular - is one of its major themes. The war is first highlighted around the time that Joey is dragged into the novel's foreground. The way that it is handled once again exposes Franzen's inadequacy as a writer.

Beyond anything, what stands out as shocking about the discussion of the Iraq war in Freedom is the author's barely disguised anti-Semitism in his tracing of its causes. He shows us Joey becoming involved with a rich Jewish family, the patriarch of which is "the founder and luminary president of a think tank devoted to advocating the unilateral exercise of American military supremacy to make the world freer and safer, especially for America and Israel. Hardly a week passed, in October and November, without ... an opinion piece in the Times or the Journal in which [he] ... expounded on the menace of radical Islam. They'd also watched him on the News Hour and Fox News. He had a mouth full of exceptionally white teeth that he flashed every time he started speaking."

This man (with his “mouth full of exceptionally white teeth that he flashed”) recruits Joey to his think tank, after this conversation between them:

"But that's because they're free," Joey said. "Isn't that what freedom is for? The right to think whatever you want? I mean, I admit, it's a pain in the ass sometimes" ... "That's exactly right," Jenna's father said. "Freedom is a pain in the ass. And that's precisely why it's so imperative that we seize the opportunity that's been presented to us this fall. To get a nation of free people to let go of their bad logic and sign on with better logic, by whatever means necessary."

From the think tank, which “In Joey's view ... did indeed have a hush-hush motive for supporting the invasion: the protection of Israel, which, unlike the United States, was within striking distance of even the crappy sort of missile that Saddam's scientists were capable of building”, Joey becomes involved with "RISEN (Restore Iraqi Secular Enterprise Now) an LBI subsidiary that had won a no-bid contract to privatize the formerly state-controlled bread-baking industry in newly liberated Iraq”, and thence he moves on to highly dubious moneymaking enterprises which endanger lives.

What are we to make of all this? Even leaving aside the barely concealed anti-Semitism (which Franzen once again raises and then narrowly slides away from in his treatment of the character Galina who is identified as a 'Russian Jew' later in the book), the details of the thing are so risible. If Franzen wants to be taken seriously, why does he call an organisation dedicated to introducing breadbaking in Iraq RISEN? It's not a very funny play on words and it undermines the plausibility of the whole episode.

There is one last aspect of Franzen's writing that I find distinctly unappealing and that is his handling of sex. This, however, may be a personal objection: following the phenomenal success of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, which I found pretty unpleasant because of the weird and murky scenes of sado masochism at its heart, I recognise that I may be more sensitive than most about these kinds of things. Nevertheless I have to say that the scenes in Freedom involving Joey and Connie having phone sex are probably the most disgusting things I have ever read. I did consider quoting from them, but, remembering how a friend of mine went to see The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover - which I was too squeamish to go to - and then insisted on giving me such a vivid account of it that I might as well have gone along, I realised that all I would really be doing would be unburdening myself in a kind of therapy that would rid me of the horrible experience by passing it on to some other poor innocent. Suffice to say, there is a very vivid description of a fantasy involving poo in that section of the book.

Of course, the phone sex episodes may well be intended as manifestations of the freedom alluded to in the book's title. Presumably everything in the book is designed be seen in the light of that word. The Iraq war is fought for "freedom" by a nation that is freer than any has been in history. Its citizens are freed from the necessity to use up all their energy merely surviving, their lives are largely leisured, family, church, cohesive traditions and mores have collapsed and citizens are free to do as they please. But what dismal choices they are given to make in Franzen's world. As well as ridding them of poverty and disease and fire and brimstone, he seems to have stripped them of kindness and fellow feeling and love. He portrays parent/child relationships as completely doomed, deliberately mirroring Walter's relationship with his father with Joey's relationship with him (Walter is described as engaged in “a lifelong struggle against his father” and Joey feels about Walter that he's “been battling him all his life.” Patty devotes herself to not making the mistakes her mother made with her children, to being there for them, not working, making sure they have her around. Jessica's response is to react against that and return to the role Patty was reacting against: “...she never really made anything of herself except being a good mom. The one thing I know for sure is I'm never going to stay home full-time with my kids,” she says.) This is all well and good, although a pretty bleak way of looking at things. If you do subscribe to that viewpoint, however, Larkin has already expressed the same sentiments, much better and in only two lines.

Given what a thoroughly objectionable book Freedom is, it is surprising to realise that Franzen may have Tolstoyan delusions about it. War and Peace features quite prominently at one stage and I have heard it claimed that Franzen sees Walter as Bezukhov, Patty as Natasha and Richard Katz as some kind of corrupted Volkonsky. Patty and Richard have an affair, but the "truth is that nothing between Patty and Richard was ever going to last, because they couldn't help being disappointments to each other, because neither was as lovable to the other as Walter was to both of them." I think Franzen is trying here to transform the threesome into a tragically noble triumvirate. He does not succeed: they remain what they are – rudderless, self-centred, unloved lost creatures staggering about in a morally anarchic world. Tolstoy had a vision of eternal beauty. Volkonsky lay on the ground and saw something transcendent in the sky. Franzen instead gives us faeces and Joey sorting through his own excrement, searching for his wedding ring.“Mercifully, the ring turned up in the second of the turds he broke apart.” Freedom. It's wonderful stuff.


  1. hmmmm.... my mother is reading this book. I'll send her the link to your blog - see if she agrees with your take on it

  2. How impressive to have a mother who knows what to do with a link.

  3. Oh dear, I do love your labels for this. Clearly it seems I should give this one a miss. One of my groups is doing it now but timing was poor and I didn't feel driven to read it... But, the question is, is it better than Jacob de Zoet since at least you finished this one?

  4. Not only does she know what to do with a link, she now also wants to know more about Mark Griffith and his proposed book "Collateral Damage"

  5. The book is available now on Amazon. Mark comes from Yorkshire but lives in Budapest, was a magazine editor, before that a financial journalist, before that a futures trader, before that at Cambridge, runs a website about disappearing languages, speaks excellent Hungarian, teaches in Austria from time to time in some capacity I've forgotten, seems to be interested by almost everything, reads very widely and appears to remember far more of what he reads than I ever can remember of what I read, lives an eccentrically unplugged in life (not unplugged in to computers but to conventional things like car ownership and financial ties et cetera). Is that the sort of thing she wants to know?

  6. Ah yes, I thought I remembered your post on this (Thanks for finding the Search Box for your blog). As I said in my comment, I hadn't planned to read it, and then my group here decided to do it. As you know I did find it tedious to some degree but not to your degree. I didn't find the characters as inconsistent as you ... I thought they were rather realistic. Walter became angry because of the frustrations in his life, Joey gradually grew up etc. But, perhaps I didn't read it as closely as you did.

    I did find the tone not clear ... what was satire, what was straight.

    BTW I did think the phone sex was a little more than I needed to know ... but he did then show, I suppose, how it was more than Connie wanted to be part of too after a while.

    Ah well, enough of that!

  7. The phone sex - I'd managed to forget about that awful scene, aaargh.