Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Franzen Probably Stuck Firecrackers Up His Star Wars Figures' Butts

Umbrellas - Sleeping at Last (mp3)
Stay Down - Smoking Popes (mp3)

“I guess my life hasn’t always been happy, or easy, or exactly what I wanted. At a certain point, I just have to try not to think too much about certain things, or else they’ll break my heart.”

Patty, the depressive and tortured wife at the heart of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, wants an apology from her mother for damages done. The quote above is all she gets. And, by the time she pulls it from her mother like some impacted wisdom tooth, it’s more than she ever expected and more than sufficient.

Unfortunately, some three decades pass between when Patty first needs the apology and when she finally receives it, and in that time she’s placed her faith in a domestic house of cards and watched as it crumbles under the weight of time and things unsaid. Her husband, Walter, was never a candidate for The Bachelor. He was more suited for Beauty & the Geek. Their daughter Jessica is so well-rounded and mentally balanced as to have rendered her parents prematurely insignificant. Their son Joey ends up serving as the vehicle for every demon and angel in Patty’s Pandora’s Box of needs and wants and fears.

Contemporary literature cannot have a family without dysfunction, so the challenge for the best writers is to fight to convince us that the dysfunction of their tale is somehow deserving of the magnifying glass.

Unfortunately for Jonathan Franzen, everything I read is filtered through the comparative lens of a fanatical Richard Russo fan, and everything is doomed to lack an ingredient that the demigod Russo offers.

In the case of Freedom -- and it was also true with Franzen’s maybe-slightly-better previous novel The Corrections -- what Franzen lacks is a true, deep, sincere sympathizing love of his characters. Franzen loves the family at the heart of Freedom, but he can’t help but detest them, too.

When Richard Russo (Straight Man, Nobody's Fool, Bridge of Sighs) creates a character, I get the feeling he’s let this person swim around in his brain for eons, as if he’s developed relations with these characters in Inception time, the dream-within-a-dream slowdown where, in the time we waking souls spend watching an episode of Modern Family, he has lived a lifetime with these creations of his. He loves his characters the way a sagely wise shaman loves all people, knows all people, knows their hearts, knows they’re all deserving of forgiveness and honesty.

Franzen, on the other hand, can’t help himself. He loves his characters like Romeo loves girlfriends. It’s a roller-coaster of nauseating emotional flux. One minute he would take a knife for them, and the next he would prefer shoving the knife into them. One minute his prose gushes with admiration for their nobility and the next you can feel his seething superiority, and you know he thinks they’re inexcusably pathetic creatures.

This difference is crucial for me as a reader. It speaks very specifically to what I seek in great books, to what I value, to my weaknesses and needs. I make this clear because this difference need not be proof that a Russo book is “better” than a Franzen novel. The American canon of great books is filled with authors whose attitudes toward their characters run these two lines and millions more. Some great authors create characters as vessels of hate, as reminders of evil. Some treat their characters like infants or like gods.

Franzen, Perotta at his best, and Russo all love humanity. But only with Russo do I never get the sense of condescension. It’s why I love him so completely as an author; because as much as I write, I can’t imagine how he can so easily avoid such an omnipresent emotion in the evaluation of hundreds upon hundreds of human beings.

But back to Freedom. Twice in the book I felt he took things down an inevitable path that bordered on the absurd, as if he started hydroplaning and couldn’t hit the brakes in time. But his odd narrative choices -- writing close to half the book as an autobiography written by Patty in the third person... (yeah, read that one again)... or opening and closing the book with a semi-omniscient take on the Berglunds as bit players in the complex organism of a neighborhood -- worked very well.

I loved ⅘ of this book, and it’s a great book for anyone who enjoys a beautifully-written book about royally screwed-up families. For some of us in the Land of Beautifully-Flawed Domesticity, books like this are like gladiator battles and 5-car accidents on the side of the Interstate, and we can’t help but buy a ticket and cheer on the hungry tigers or slow down as we pass to see if there’s any blood on the windshield.


Sara C said...

Nice post. Though I haven't read Freedom, I did read The Corrections some time ago, and this is exactly my (previously unknown to me) problem with it. I didn't grow to appreciate the characters enough, even after ALL THOSE PAGES, and I can now blame Franzen's lack of appreciation for them. What a good distinction you've drawn here. Gold star for Billy!

Bob said...

I didn't really read much of your post because I don't want to know anything about the book, but I'm looking forward to reading it and finding out what all the buzz is about.

Billy said...

Bob - FWIW, I'm fairly certain I gave away nothing that could be considered a significant spoiler. Even the last paragraph and the first quote are very much out of time or context. But... maybe I'm wrong and don't even know it 'cuz I lost perspective upon finishing the book...