I just finished Jonathan Franzen’s much ballyhooed novel, Freedom, and I’m finding it unusually difficult to express why I feel a little disappointed with it. Franzen is undoubtedly a gifted writer. He has an ear for dialogue, and the imaginative breadth of Freedom (as that of The Corrections) is undeniably impressive. But something still feels missing. He certainly has a knack for capturing the nuances of poisonous relationships, and the myriad ways in which we ourselves poison and allow ourselves to be poisoned by those very relationships. As with his previous novel, The Corrections, Freedom is about an unhappy family. And “unhappy families,” as the famous opening line of Anna Karenina declares, are “unhappy in their own way,” as opposed to the dreary monotony of happy families, which “are all alike.”
But maybe that’s part of what’s bothering me. It’s not really clear to me that Franzen’s unhappy families are really all that different, at least in any interesting ways. Both The Corrections and Freedom follow an almost identical outline in their presentation of the human self: our parents make horrible, infuriating mistakes. In a feverish attempt to escape the apparent hell of falling into their image and likeness, we rush headlong to an antithetical set of habits and practices that, in the end, only replicate their faults in accidentally different ways. This realization is either a comfort or impossibly depressive, depending on the maturity and introspective authenticity with which we confront it. All children are like their parents, and perhaps the best thing we children can do is be thankful for our parents virtues and, as it were, lean into those virtues, instead of furiously clawing away at their faults. Doing so will only drive our own children into their own antipodes of anti-parental rebellion.
There’s something strangely deterministic in Franzen’s novels. It’s almost Flannery O’Connor-ish, but without the transcendence. I mean that the inevitability of each person’s unhappiness follows its course in a much more banal, almost mechanical way than would happen in an O’Connor story. Each of Franzen’s (interesting) characters are simply mirror images of each other, and those lucky enough to escape the simple meanness and pettiness that characterizes the others only do so by a kind of temperamental liberation. That is to say, the “nicer” characters are simply born nicer, but the others are abandoned to marriages defined by serial infidelity and petty disputes, and this latter group can only hope to live a somewhat happy life by seeing their entire world come crashing down.
But what, exactly, is this fulfilling and happy life? It’s not clear to me that, for Franzen, it’s really anything else than simply being nicer to each other. The characters who plumb the abyss of depression only rise as far as the temperamental affability of the other, less interesting characters.
There’s hardly a kind word said about religion in Freedom, and the end of the book has a cartoonishly drawn Evangelical who we’re clearly meant to despise. Moreover, the plot revolves around a character’s attempt to combat human overpopulation. This character also reveals that he hates nothing, literally nothing, more than the Catholic Church.
Most of the characters in Franzen’s novels hate almost everyone else, except who they’re sleeping with at a particular moment, and even they do not escape their paramours’ seemingly tireless and universal anger. When the greatest human virtue one can imagine is “niceness,” it’s not really a surprise to me that Franzen has a hard time displaying what there might be to, you know, like about being human in the first place.
These thoughts don’t really convey my undeniably mixed feelings about the book. They really are mixed, and again, Franzen does a lot of things well. But what I’m finding interesting is my inability to articulate exactly why I didn’t find it worth the accolades and praise it’s been given… I’ll close with this quote from an interview that I think is insightful, if only to show that I do think Franzen is worth attending to.
“I can see that lack of resolution now as a young writer’s move. You find that you have talent as a novelist, you understand a lot more about the world than many other people your age do, and yet you haven’t lived enough—certainly I hadn’t—to really have something to say. Everything is still guessed at, every conclusion is provisional. And this came to be my gripe with the postmodern aversion to closure. It’s like, Grow up already! Take some responsibility for your narrative! …Aversion to closure can be refreshing at certain historical moments, when ossified cultural narratives need to be challenged. But it loses its subversive bite in a culture that celebrates eternal adolescence. It becomes part of the problem.” – From “The Art of Fiction, No. 207: Jonathan Franzen,” in The Paris Review