Sunday, September 19, 2010

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Many intelligent, well-meaning people will mistake—have mistakenFreedom for a good novel.

But many (perhaps most) intelligent, well-meaning people are masochists, who mistake pain for love and grief for insight. Children of the Old Testament, they worship a spiteful God, a disgusted God, and their attitude towards themselves and the rest of humanity can be succinctly summarized as: We get what we deserve (as long as what we get is bad).

We shouldn't be surprised, then, that those same people embrace a book whose primary ambition is the systematic annihilation of its characters. That ambition confirms a worldview that they've been trained since infancy to enjoy.

I know that most of the great characters in the history of the novel are annihilated by their authors. The reasons for that are complex and most certainly worth considering. But the novel's primary ambition has never been annihilation. Great novelists are not sadists. Tolstoy takes no pleasure in Anna Karenina's demise.

What, then, is a novel's primary ambition?

To re-concieve God. To displace the Sacred Texts in the moral and intellectual life of its audience.

Any novel attempting something else is not worth reading.

Novels attempt this re-conception very simply: they create a world, and by doing so propose a new idea of the Divine. We—the audience, humanity—experience this divinity (and, by extension, our own humanity) mostly through the novel's characters, feeling life through them, for them. What happens to Emma Bovary, to Raskolnikov, to Anna Karenina, to Herzog in fact only happens to us.

So to judge a book is to judge the theology of its creator, and particularly the creator's idea of humanity.

Which bring us to Freedom.

Like The Corrections, Freedom is the ambitious attempt to contemplate a particular moment in American life. It presents itself as a social novel. It follows the lives of some decent middle-class liberal Americans through the hideous years of the Bush Administration.

That sounds like a worthwhile project. Why, then, do I find the book objectionable?

Four reasons: 1) its sadistic attitude toward its characters (and therefore toward its readers); 2) its incompetent use of free indirect speech; 3) its gaudy symbolism; and 4) its theological conviction that we achieve redemption through suffering.

Let's consider each point individually:

1) Until the end of the book (see 4!), absolutely everything that happens to the book's characters is bad. Dully, sadistically, characteristically, insignificantly bad.

2) Without having the sense to specifically name the problem, B.R. Myers isolates Franzen's incompetent handling of free indirect speech in his scathing review of the book for The Atlantic. I'll merely note that the incoherence of the characters—the chasm between their situation and their language—cannot be excused as postmodern truthiness. (The rape quote that Myers criticizes in his article is characteristic of the entire book.) It's simply not possible that Franzen's characters think as they do when he permits them to narrate the book. And all novels have an obligation to remain possible. To abandon the possible is always artistic failure. 

3) When one of the main characters, who has fled his young bride, recognizes the errors of his ways when he's searching through his own excrement for his wedding ring, I conclude that the author doesn't trust his character's (which means his audience's) intelligence. It's incumbent upon all novelists to leave their sledgehammers at home.

4) The sentimentality of Freedom's final pages, when Franzen finally relents and permits his characters a modicum of happiness, serve to reinforce the tediously bourgeois (or, more specifically, Christian) notion that only by suffering do we find redemption. In this regard the novel is an intellectual disappointment, a return to the dreary safety of received, cliché ideas.

At some point one must take a stand. Freedom is not great literature. It is not even good literature. It is clumsy, misanthropic, bourgeois kitsch.

(My review of The Corrections can be found here.)

No comments:

Post a Comment