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Much ado about Franzen

16 Oct

It is all but inevitable that the inaugural post of a literary blog launched in the fall of 2010 make some mention of the Franzen frenzy currently sweeping the nation’s book scene. Given that I’ve just completed Freedom myself and have had few other finishers to discuss its merits with, all kinds of thoughts and criticisms regarding this purported Great American Novel have been swimming free form through my head. So while I hope future posts to be far more focused and pithy, please excuse me while I unleash the buildup of Franzenfreude (to borrow Jennifer Weiner’s term) that has been cluttering my mind.

Recent articles in The Boston Globe and NPR, among others, have made note of Franzen’s surprising absence from the list of fiction finalists for The National Book Award, announced on Oct. 12th. Both of the aforementioned articles are notably terse, perhaps seeking to evade the appearance of bias regarding the National Book Foundation’s decision while still making note of the controversy surrounding it. Indeed, so rarely in recent history has a novel unleashed so much debate. But then again, when TIME places Franzen on their front cover, an honor bestowed among a choice few that includes Joyce and Salinger, they are asking, even inviting, a level of skepticism. Before our collective consciousness hails this man as belonging to the company of Updike and Morrison, we must allow the necessary criticism and vetting to play out.

And play out it has, most virulently in the damning tweets of Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, both of whom  in so many words (140 or less, to be precise) condemned Franzen as a “white male literary darling” of  the likes of The New York Times. These comments provoked a long and fascinating argument about why, in our ostensibly post-feminist world, works written by men are often still taken more seriously by the literary establishment than works written by women. To put it succinctly: if Franzen writes an undeniably domestic novel about the struggles and tensions of a family, the powers that be can term it that respectable but elusive word, “literature.” But if a woman writes about these same topics, the novel is branded and marketed as “women’s fiction,” “chick lit,” or some other gender-based (not to mention pejorative) genre that, by definition is not “literature.”

Does Franzen get a free pass at this branding because of his gender? Following all of the hype surrounding its release, and never having read his previous novel The Corrections (which did win the National Book Award in 2001) nor his essay collections, I was curious to check out Freedom. Rarely willing to fork over $30 for a hardcover of a book I’ve never read before, I put myself around #343 on the Boston Public Library waiting list and figured I’d read the novel at a later date, until one day it essentially fell into my lap for free (ah, the perks of working in publishing!). I’ve come away with mixed feelings and a sense of uneasiness regarding the originality of those feelings when so much opinion was thrown at me before I even opened it up. When one is forced to bring so many preconceptions with them to a text, how objectively can he or she truly read it?

Franzen does accomplish with mastery the crafting of a text both microscopic and macroscopic in focus that actually works. The Berglunds, if unlikeable, are well-developed and remain at the heart of the story in a way few characters do in social critiques. I’m thinking Don DeLillo here –while Jack Gladney and his family are more than just archetypes in White Noise, they nonetheless serve as means to DeLillo’s greater end of critiquing postmodern society. When we feel for them, if we do at all, we feel for them in the sense that we feel for what they stand for. We all know these same Hitler studies professors and naive happiness-drug experimenters in our own lives and see their likenesses everywhere. And that is DeLillo’s intention. The Berglunds, by contrast, are real people, individuals in their own right who may carry with them certain stereotypes, but who are first and foremost themselves. Franzen’s ability to maintain these individuals while tackling greater social issues such as 9/11, the environment, and class warfare is laudable.

But when one considers the actual language Franzen uses to convey both levels of the text, problems arise. The dialogue feels forced and affected in spots, its interior monologues sometimes cliche, and its metaphors simply absurd. His repeated references to Katz’ “prophetic dick” underscore the extent to which Franzen’s language comes across as both amateur and alienating. Sentences like the following flood its pages: “A navigational beacon in Katz’ black Levi’s, a long-dormant transmitter buried by a more advanced civilization, was was sparking back to life.” Really? Being the remarkably inexperienced writer that I am, it is rare I feel the urge, while reading a text published by an eminent trade publisher like Farrar, Straus & Giroux, to grab a red pen and start crossing out and fixing sentences. Yet Franzen’s writing felt hastily produced and in serious need of some tightening. Literary fiction? No. Freedom read far more like Dan Brown-esque commercial fiction.

And what of the assertions that Franzen’s novel is Gatsbysian in its proportions? The term “Great American Novel” carries with it implications of broadness of content; if the novel is truly “American,” it must contain within it the voices of a cross-section of our diverse nation. Franzen’s novel does move about several major cities and the Minnesotan countryside, but does so with a troupe of champagne socialists with an interest base best described by Stuff White People Like. Their few foils are their trashy Republican neighbors in St. Paul and Walter’s brutish, gun-loving relatives. The novel pits the upper middle class white urban self against the conservative, God-and-guns other. I’m not trying to pull a Glenn Beck here, but I do think we should call some attention to the fact that Franzen’s main characters represent only one subset of American culture. Sure, Joey may become a Republican, but he becomes the “right” kind of conservative — a fiscal one. Most Americans have never heard of Macalester or Swarthmore or that little school in Maine with the horrible football team than Patty’s grandfather attended, and which I’m almost positive is my alma mater. Why no mention by name of this wonderful little college, Jon? Minorities are also conspicuously absent from the text, save Lalitha, by far one of its weakest and most poorly developed characters. It’s perfectly fine to write about arugula-eating Obama lovers, but one cannot focus on such a subgroup if he or she is to truly produce a “Great American Novel.”

Setting this label aside and assessing the text for what it is, Freedom does poignantly capture the essence of the Bush years and a privileged but troubled family attempting to navigate them. Had his prose been less overtly self-aware, haughty, and overwhelmingly phallocentric (in the most literal sense of the term. Perhaps we should create a new category called “dick lit”) his tale could have been delivered in a fashion remarkably more heartwarming and genuine. But those are “chick” words, aren’t they? I suppose that’s why Nicole Krauss, Jaimy Gordon, and Karen Tei Yamashita were all selected as National Book Award finalists.