Okay, 3 stars might seem cussedly contrary, a cheap goldilocks diversion away from the current hyped-up epidemic of 5s and the utterly derisive lowballers who JF just rubs the wrong way* (and sidestepping, too, the inevitable anti-Franzen backlash, coming soon to a review near you).
'Cause there are things I love here. Franzen sculpts, particularly in the brilliant first hundred (or so) pages, a precise and subtly eccentric narrative structure which defines an expansiveness--literally, in the first section, writing from a whole community's point of view, across the sweep of a decade--and a centered specificity of detail and incident that... well, it's not easy to be Big and domestic, to have a sense of History and yet also delineate the day to day. For a 500+-page behemoth, it zips; for a well-plotted potboiler a beautiful array of subordinate themes and details get woven in, key images and ideas reverberate -- it's a thick symphony, not your typical four-four verse chorus verse. It's often funny. It's often moving.
Of course, you could sure as hell knock a number of his tics and flaws. When I hit a scene, some two-thirds of the way through, where a character on vacation has a lovingly-described close encounter with some turds, it seemed a rut rather than a clever choral return to a very similar scene in The Corrections
. And it ain't just shit that returns -- he's again obsessed with (white, upper-middle-class) narcissists, with parent-child relationships, with the pathologies of smug superior rage and a corollary self-loathing. And he's just lousy with the loudly-overdetermined non-white and/or non-wealthy supporting cast -- he adds a late-game South Asian assistant who seems a version of a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl
; his working-class schmoes are all Verny gun-clinging aggressors. He is corrosively and often incisively interrogating the white upper-middles, but he can barely get beyond cartoonish determinism for anyone else.
What I want to focus on, though, are some things that undercut even the positive aspects of the work: the incisive portrait of a certain kind of American, the grand ambitious sweep to take stock of today's America.
The latter first -- Franzen wants to diagnose what's wrong with America. And his insight is often acute, zeroing in on a culture obsessed with a vision of freedom that nullifies any sense of responsibility. The ethos of Self-actualization sets the stage for every form of self-destruction: disrupting relationships, fostering an endemic urge to consume, and (most troubling of all, to JF) destroying the environment. There are many lovely lines and often scornful precision, as Franzen has the essayist's eye for turning a telling bit of context into a dazzling explication.
But I was often frustrated at how his critique of the perversities of rampant individualism was so obsessively stuck at the level of individual pathologies. His is a symptomatic rather than a systemic critique--if we only each thought better, thought more of others and less of ourselves, the culture would realize more of its promise, its flaws would (like his protagonists) be tempered by ... well, not redemption--it'd be hard to label Franzen an optimist. But some kind of betterment. The problem with America, he seems to argue, is its ideological foundation in the grandiose I. But his focus on his characters is incessantly, almost absurdly psychological -- far more Freud than Marx, more Sopranos
(which gets a shout-out) than The Wire
. It tells us more about (certain) Americans than about America.
Another illustration: on 278-279, son Joey walks through a meticulously-defined post-9/11 NYC -- these paragraphs are a model of observational narration, the kind of stuff that makes Tom Wolfe howl in appreciation. And yet big chunks of the novel are set in St. Paul, where I happen to live, and .... it reads very Googley. Specific names are dropped (Jim Scheibel! Hamline Avenue! Taste of Thailand!), but the place feels thinly-sketched, almost irrelevant. Same goes for his West Virginia, even his Hibbing. He gets the natural environment right, but the social world is too often backdrop. In other words, his "America" is stuck more at the level of ideas; too often, he's telling us stuff, making sharp observations without showing us how this world is revealed.**
The problem is more acute with character. If it's a centrally psychological novel, contextualized sharply but sometimes slightly with a critique of (North) America, okay -- I can go with that. Updike, Roth, Atwood... you could say the same about them, and they're generally good company to be in. But Franzen has problems here, too--too many of his central characters seem too frequently the same. I'll give one example, but could say more -- Richard Katz, the arrogant Id-ic complement to protagonist Walter Berglund's arrogant SuperEgo, is a musician. And I'll be damned if anything substantive about music--about what drives Katz as a performer, about why music matters, about the specificity of performance--comes up. Again, it feels Googley: we know some of his fingers' nerves are dead (from all that guitarring), and lots of names are dropped, but it feels like a character trait that Franzen doesn't even care too much about. Katz is all dick, is riven by the same kinds of Selfish need and responsibility to Others that all the major players have. (He's better with Walter's "particularity"--as a progressive Environmentalist, a subject about which JF knows quite a bit, his obsessions get a lot of careful attention. Patty, a basketball player, .... some.) But the characters seem to collapse, in many ways, into a Character, this American Character he's busy critiquing. Oh, I again overstate: but it doesn't take too much reduction (to the weeping, the overdetermination of their respective sexual energies, their conflicts with parents or children) to see them as all One Franzenite, rather than a complex and varied social portrait. His major portraits seem kind of like a repeat sketching of one Figure; his minor characters are cartoons.
Whichever way you slice the Social Realist definition--in portraying a Culture or portraying a set of Characters--Franzen's scope is far less expansive and effective than the greats he so ambitiously emulates. (All the nods to War and Peace
One last complaint. In raving about a book from last year that I loved
, I wrote about the American ecstatic style -- multiple in voices and tone, hugely Comic and generous (even when defining tragic contexts and social horrors). Big-ass American dreaming, that sometimes loses sight of the tight structure or forward-motion of plot. But they PREACH, man, they sing that Whitmanesque song. Franzen, on the other hand, is more Jonathan Edwards -- he's in the American jeremiad tradition, often darkly funny but dour and depressive, horrified at who we are. His sermons can be scathing, and this novel is (despite all these complaints) often compelling. But it just doesn't hit this listener as hard. I don't feel implicated here. His assholes aren't the kind of asshole I am, and they aren't reflective of the rich, varied range of assholes I run into. And even more importantly, despite greater sympathy in Freedom
than in Corrections
, there's little sense of delight or liberation in their searches for freedom. A great writer (like Atwood, or Roth) may be just as corrosive about characters' flaws, but their flaws are also their virtues -- our judgments are always bound up in our appreciations. Alas, I just find myself diagnosing and assessing the Franzenites. It's engrossing, but (for this reader) it's no masterpiece.
* I get the sense that many people see nothing but misanthropy, Franzen viciously caricaturing, all bitter irony. But I see a deep-seated empathy. When praising Charles Schultz's "Peanuts," Franzen rhapsodized about Charlie and company's outsized heads and absurd limbs and hands, which he argued gave the bittersweet, even alienated pathos of the strips a much sharper resonance for engagement -- where a more realist style would have beaten the reader down, or turned them off. All of Franzen's characters are similarly inflated, oversized (in ego and flaws, rather than heads) -- to call him a realist is perhaps to lose that sense of cartoonish sympathy crucial to a more profound identification.
**I'm overstating. Franzen OFTEN does a fine job with quick social sketches. But it's a big book, and these are persistent flaws I'm noting--hell, long stretches in Saint Paul could have been almost any city block heading into gentrification. And... see above.