I haven’t done many book reviews lately, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading books. I read a number of books this year, many of which I enjoyed but none of which inspired me to react. Many books are pleasant enough to read but don’t leave a memorable impression. A few are memorably great, and deserve loud praise. It’s very rarely, though, that I work my way through a doorstopper of a novel in a state of sustained aggravation. One such novel which I feel compelled to eviscerate is Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed Freedom. Not only because it’s not very good, but also because it’s symptomatic of far larger, and much worse, literary trends.
First off, and somewhat off topic, for those not heavily into the literary fiction scene, Jonathaan Franzen achieved a level of tabloid notoriety when his breakout novel The Corrections was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her Book Club, an invitation the author expressed so much displeasure about that it was rescinded. In the ensuing media shitstorm Franzen published (in respectable publications such as The New Yorker) a series of essays justifying himself. Those essays represent the bleating of a thoroughly medium-level talent insisting that he is, in fact, too good for the mainstream and middle-brow readership Oprah’s Book Club would have brought him. While I don’t hold Oprah Winfrey in very high regard as a tastemaker, but Franzen’s positioning himself as a far too serious of a writer for the likes of her fan base was downright pompous and elitist. Now, a genuinely groundbreaking and challenging author – a David Foster Wallace, perhaps – could have made that claim for himself and got away with it, but the truth is, Jonathan Franzen is a good writer but far from a great one, and by no means too good to be appreciated by the masses who respect Oprah Winfrey’s book recommendations.
So, based on that particular fiasco, I have developed a bit of a bias against the author. On the other hand, I found The Corrections quite enjoyable, and have also very much liked many of his personal essays. Why then, did his latest offering, Freedom, rub me so much the wrong way? Perhaps -no, most definitely – because it belongs to a certain thriving literary genre I like to call The Unbearable Angst and Suffering of Being Affluent and White. Also because the book is full of casual sexism of the it’s-not-me-talking-it’s-the-character type; because the only non-white character is also the only person to die, for no particular reason; because depression is the only real-life problem anyone ever has to deal with; and because the necessity of earning a living is a valid concern to literally no one.
The best parts of the book come early on (they were actually published in The New Yorker as stand alone stories and you can find them there) as do the most affecting events. Early in the first half of the book, Patty Emerson, a star high school athlete, is raped at a pool party. She seeks help only to bump up against the selfishness and indifference of her own parents, who condescendingly advise her to “just let it go.” The parental betrayal hurts more than the rape, and Patty never forgives. For a good, long, entertaining time, we follow Patty as she throws herself into sports, seeks friendship and love, and strives her damndest to create an identity as far apart from her parents’ as humanly possible. Even though Patty inevitably descends into alcoholism and depression, she remains the wittiest, most interesting and best developed character in the novel. It’s painfully clear how one traumatic event can create a lifelong chain of damaging ripples, causing pain to people in ever increasing circles.
Unfortunately, for the last two thirds of the book, we are asked to follow the narratives of Patty’s milquetoast husband Walter, their unbearable douchebag of a son, and an old college friend turned foul-tempered rock star. None of those three are remotely likable, and all three continuously make terrible decisions that make no sense except as plot contrivances. There’s conspicuously much ado made about the male characters’ incredibly difficult struggle to view women as human beings; the author repeatedly spells it out for us as the men seek to find some tiny little thing that would somehow humanize the women whose pants they’re trying to get into. The female characters, meanwhile, are ruthlessly judged by physical appearance in a manner that, frankly, goes above and beyond the minimum required by a reasonably skilled writer to convey a character’s chauvinistic attitude. At one point, the horndog old rocker, seeing that his best friend appears to have a much younger girlfriend in tow, cruelly scans her for some physical defect (a fat ass, to be exact) that would make his own ego less sore for not being the center of attention. (This same character also repeatedly feels ashamed for experiencing sexual desire towards a woman close to his own age.)
There are also prolonged and extremely boring asides about the shady doings of a Halliburton-like company contracted to import something or other to Iraq, lessons in songbird conservation and mountaintop removal, and a colorful chapter in none other than Beckley, WV, complete with racist hillbillies.
It’s true that the themes in Freedom are universal ones; family bonds, marital dissatisfaction, feelings of insecurity and alienation, the search for an identity of one’s own. But being on some level universal does not automatically render those things interesting or worthy of minute description, especially when they come attached to such dull and unlikable characters. The main problem is that there aren’t really any problems. These people are their own worst enemies. Nothing stands between them and fulfillment except their own chaotic emotions, pointless old grudges, and too much alcohol. When everyone is a white, wealthy, able-bodied, heterosexual, well-educated American citizen, and nobody has an ounce of personality or does anything remotely out of the ordinary, there’s really not much to write about. There’s only so much drama to be milked out of two boring people being vaguely unhappy with their marriage. It’s really the apotheosis of the Generic Literary Novel, and that’s the main thing that infuriates me about Franzen and his acclaimed, bestselling novels.The big question is, why is this exact sort of content accepted as the default topic of Serious American Literature? Unhappy white people have been touted as the standard of universal experience in American literature for decades, and it might have been at least somewhat interesting the first time John Updike did it, but it’s way past being interesting now, especially with so many other narratives that are currently considered ‘special interest’ hovering at the fringe of popular acceptance. There’s just no excuse for the literary establishment to continually shower money, acclaim and publicity on mediocre white dudes writing about the suffering of other mediocre white dudes. Oprah’s Book Club, by the way, has done great things to publicize works by writers of the non-mediocre-white-male variety, and by that standard, it’s she who’s too good for the likes of Jonathan Franzen.