Jonathan Franzen’s first significant novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, was pushed at me by my librarian wife. I was impressed by a writer so young (mid-twenties then) having such insight into people. (Lack of same made me give up writing fiction.)
He did it again in The Corrections, an even more humanly intimate book. Franzen isn’t just trying to write novels like other writers nowadays do. Theirs may often be piquant, clever, entertaining, deep, even brilliant. But Franzen strives to do what Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Proust did.
His latest big opus, Freedom, even has a nod to Tolstoy. It’s basically a triangle story: the marriage of Walter and Patty, with Richard the third leg. If there’s an overall theme, it’s conveyed by the tendentious title. It’s free will: people making choices and (of course) not always good ones. Part of the book takes the form of a long autobiographical essay by Patty, entitled “Mistakes Were Made.” Her biggest mistake was what she then did with that manuscript.
We always read such books, in part, as self-evaluation. And I was struck by the contrast between the sheer complexity of what was going on with Franzen’s characters and the uncomplicatedness of my own family situation. I was even moved to discuss this with my wife. Sometimes I feel I’m a monument of self-satisfied complacency. I did, long ago now, have a more tortuous relationship with a woman; indeed, it still feels like I’m in the calm after a storm; yet not even that storm entailed the labyrinthine quality of Franzen’s story.
Maybe a novelist like him could portray me as papering over some inner snakepit of turmoil and pathology. But I don’t feel it.
This book is full of politics. Walter is a deeply earnest Minnesota liberal tree-hugger (bird-hugger, actually). From the start I found myself hearing his lines with the voice of Garrison Keillor doing his semi-loser character phoning his mother. That voice proved pitch-perfect throughout the novel.
Walter vents his societal and environmental concerns, with such passion and eloquence that you’d suppose Franzen is expressing his own views. Yet I wasn’t quite convinced this is not in fact a devilish send-up of people like Walter. While it’s obvious Franzen truly loathed Bush II and the Iraq War, otherwise there’s something a bit off about Walter’s rants. There’s a delicious set-piece where Walter and his assistant (and lover-to-be) try to enlist borderline rock-star Richard in an anti-population crusade, with Walter’s windy speeches punctuated with neatly puncturing one-liners from Richard.
It reminded me of a great scene in The Corrections where a young lefty college prof belabors a standard anti-corporate diatribe – whose foolishness a student then deftly disembowels. And Freedom contains one telling line about liberal denial of reality that no Walterian liberal could have penned.
Especially over-the-top was an episode that only occurs in novels and movies – Walter’s speech at a corporate shindig going wildly off-message blurting his true subversive beliefs. Having him zoned out on medication is the author’s pretext, but it’s a thin one. And did he portray Walter bellowing that humanity is “a cancer on the planet” because he, Franzen, believes such stuff, or to show what nuttiness Walterian thinking can lead to?
The book reaches a satisfying ending. I won’t be a spoiler with too much specificity. But it does illustrate the theme of free will – we have the capability of acting, taking our fates in our own hands. Reading the penultimate section, I was pounding the page, exhorting Patty, “You should just go and . . . .”
And then she does.