Sunday, November 14, 2010

Family Matters

This appeared in today's DNA.

FREEDOM Jonathan Franzen

In an essay for Harper’s magazine in 1996, Jonathan Franzen rued the contemporary novel’s inability to engage with culture in the manner in which, say, the 19th century novel did, when  new instalments of work by writers such as Dickens were awaited, pored over and discussed. As he wrote, “The ambitious young fiction writer can’t help noting that, in a recent USA Today survey of twenty-four hours in the life of American culture, there were twenty-one references to television, eight to film, seven to popular music, four to radio, and one to fiction (The Bridges of Madison County)”.

Franzen’s much-commented-upon 2001 novel, The Corrections, exploring “the possibility of connecting the personal to the social”, was an impressive attempt to overcome this, being a study of an American family over the years. His new novel, Freedom, has been greeted by a blare of trumpets, and not just from the literary pages. He’s become the first novelist in ten years to make it to the cover of Time magazine; the book has been hailed by some quarters as “the best novel of the century”; and it’s climbed up and stayed on the bestseller lists from the moment of publication.

Freedom, then, arrives with numerous expectations, and though many are realized, it must be said that it doesn’t live up to all of them. Franzen’s subject is again the American family and, in exploring the vagaries of the lives of its members, he brings out the tenor of the Bush years in America.

It opens with a bravura first chapter introducing us to the Berglunds – Walter and Patty, and their children, Joey and Jessica – entirely through the eyes of their neighbours in St Paul, Minnesota. Walter is a born do-gooder, and Patty is serially conflicted; as their lives unravel, one observer unkindly calls them “the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven”.

From here, we move to a lengthy section comprising a journal that Patty has written of her formative years, at the suggestion of her therapist. This manuscript plays a key role later in the book when it is read by two other characters, provoking a sudden change in circumstances. (In this manner, Franzen tries to combine his brand of realism with more modern methods of telling.) The problem with this record of Patty’s school, college and wedded years it that the overall tone is too ironic and knowing for us to fully believe that it’s emerged from her pen.

The narrative moves on, with detailed and rich accounts of the characters’ inner and outer lives. We’re told of Patty’s increasing loneliness and despair, Walter’s search for meaningful work, Joey’s relationship with his parents, love interests and shady business deals, and of Walter’s old friend, Richard Katz, an indie musician who achieves a degree of fame he’s ambivalent about. Befittingly, the novel is also rife with cultural markers to indicate time’s passage, from books to music to movies. (It’s odd, however, that though all the characters’ lives are deeply delved into, it’s the daughter Jessica who’s comparatively ignored.)

The tangles and triangles in all of these people’s lives are explored in an unhurried manner that brings out all their rainbow-hued complexity, and this is Freedom’s greatest achievement. There is much bleakness and heartbreak to be found in these pages, more than occasionally leavened by sly humour -- Joey’s dislike of the acronym MILF, for example.

In keeping with the title, the novel also investigates what it means to be free, in various contexts: from that of a housewife seeking validation to the social ramifications of a nation flexing its muscles overseas. Sometimes, these notions appear a tad heavy-handed, almost as though Franzen is willing himself to insert such concepts into an already smooth narrative.

It’s in the second half that the experience of reading the novel flags: Franzen’s suave, knowing prose, so impressive to begin with, rolls on and on, sometimes unevenly, and one starts to harbour a feeling that he’s too much in thrall to his characters to let them go. In particular, the detailing of Walter’s efforts at ecological conservation tend to pall.

Freedom, then, is layered and ambitious in the way too few books are in today’s times. Alas, as Browning’s Andrea del Sarto would have said, its reach exceeds its grasp.

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