Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Freedom" and its Disappointments

I almost hate to add my voice to cacophony surrounding Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom.” For weeks after its publication you could barely get three paragraphs into an arbitrary New York Times article without mention of the book.

The wild success of Franzen's latest suburban fiction is baffling to me. I read “The Corrections” in high school and abhorred the characters so intensely that I have no recollection of the novel beyond my dislike. The lack of redemption and personal depth in each cranky, self-involved figure seemed a belittlement of their live, equally flawed, counterparts. I read “Freedom” hoping the extra years would open my eyes to the strengths of the author’s oeuvre and perceptions.

I did like “Freedom” more than “The Corrections,” which is like saying I like a vicious hangover more than food poisoning. “Freedom” is an easy read. The characters are less despicable than those found in “The Corrections,” but ultimately every one comes up with a less than full deck of humanity.

Walter and Patty Berglund are surburbanites, the harbingers of gentrification in a Minnesota neighborhood. On the surface they are a Pleasantville unit of contentment, which contributes to their neighbors' enjoyment when the family begins to implode. It should come as no surprise that the pages are full of infidelity, superiority complexes, and helicopter mothering.

The conceit of the characters in “Freedom” is that they appear to be fully realized, complex figures. Franzen does not shy away from exhibiting the flaws of his characters' "human natures" and at first glance this reads as depth. But as my uncle noted in a correspondence about the text, we never really know, and thus don’t like, any of the characters.

The majority of the Berglunds actions are driven by anger, revenge, repression, etc, and are held up as prototypes of middle-class normality. I agree that people are inherently self-interested, but not that they are exclusively, constantly so.

Perhaps my life has been unfairly filled with generous people. But I come from a world of comfort and privilege and nothing I've encountered resembles the selfish, bad behavior of “Freedom.” I agree with Franzen that our boundless range of opportunity has provided us with more reasons, not fewer, to be disappointed by our circumstances. I agree that humans are flawed, egocentric and prone to making mistakes. What infuriates me about Franzen's work is that he creates caricatures and proceeds to endow them with so much history, a full 562 pages, that we are tricked into believing they are three-dimensional.

Recently, a friend asked me what was wrong with reading about characters you don’t like. Perhaps it’s a blind spot of mine, but my feeling is: Why bother? Which is not to say that I dismiss literary figures based on whether or not I would take them to dinner or agree with their morals. There is humanity in reprehensible characters, think of Humbert Humbert, and when that humanity is accessed the reader can identify or reflect upon similar vulnerabilities, moral or emotional, in herself.

Franzen’s characters made me want to smack them over the heads for being so self-consumed. They are in a state of paralysis, unable or unwilling to adjust their circumstances. There is a bit of silver lining at the end, but at that point I couldn't forgive them and just wanted to forget.

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