Jonathan Franzen, the Booth Interview, and his Novel, Freedom

Over the weekend, I was doing some online-literary-journal browsing, just some catching up, trying to see what’s going on in that world. The most interesting thing I found was an interview between Booth‘s Susan Lerner and Jonathan Franzen. In the interview’s introduction, Lerner calls Franzen “arguably the best living American novelist” — I’m never quite sure how we go about making and justifying these claims — but she was also quite clear that during Franzen’s visit to Indianapolis, he had been kind, present, and pleasant. If such a disclaimer seems defensive, you can forgive her because Franzen has such a tendency to make headlines in all the wrong ways. As the story goes, several years ago, he even pissed Oprah off.

I found the interview transcript itself quite fascinating, but Franzen went on to do two attention-worthy things: slam Jennifer Weiner pretty good and basically say that other people criticize him because they’re jealous. Wow. Naturally, The Huffington Post and others have latched onto this and done their best to make it all blow up. In the interview, Franzen also criticized social media and how we use it, and so the ultimate irony is that pretty soon his name was trending on Twitter even though he doesn’t use the medium himself.

Before you think this post is just another effort to scold Franzen, I should admit that I actually appreciate Franzen’s continued efforts to offer a critique of the way we use technology and what it might be doing to us in the process. He is willing to go against the grain, which makes him susceptible to criticism. I first encountered Franzen when he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine several years ago, courtesy of a Lev Grossman feature. I have since read three of his books, and of the three, his novel, Freedom, really stuck out to me; it’s one of my favorite books from the last decade.

Freedom is what I would call an “everything novel.” It’s the kind of book that, when asked what it’s about, you answer, “Life.” In this way, it reminds me of Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow (2001), Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons (2004), Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (1998), Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997), and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose (1971). Each novel is long, moves slowly at times, and pains and frustrates the reader every step of the way in the same sense that life often does because it refuses to work out the way we want it to. Our best efforts continually fall short, and yet, grace can also surprise us along the way. Grossman points out in his article that Freedom pushes back against the micro approach of so many contemporary novels (and even more so, poems), and lets us see generations of life unfold, how one event and person affects the next. “We make our own heaven and hell,” Veronica tells her sister Patty, one of the book’s most prominent characters.

Freedom lets us into the life of a contemporary Middle-American family, where ambition, transience, “green” advocacy, our addictions to SUVs and plasma televisions, and expressive sexuality are all out in the open, juxtaposed with each other. What Franzen makes abundantly clear through the plight and (even the small, redemptive moments) is that for all our best (and worst) intentions, community in our culture mostly disintegrates. When Patty indulges in her long-repressed fantasy with her husband’s rock start best friend, she ultimately loses the emotional trust of her beloved son. Likewise, as her husband, Walter, falls for a younger, attractive professional assistant, his daughter resents him. Maybe Walter is the “hero” of the novel if there is one (“I adore you for your goodness,” Patty writes to him), but he is hardly an enviable one. He loses both women he loves, mostly estranges himself from his children, his political and professional dreams are far from ever realized, and he is loyal to a best friend who doesn’t take his intellectual or political pursuits seriously and who ultimately betrays Walter.

When Walter and Patty move to Washington, D.C. — away from their smaller and perhaps more nature-conscious neighborhood in Minnesota — an important part of the Berglunds is lost, even as they experience financial success far beyond what they enjoyed in Minnesoata. Compromises on principle become commonplace, until Walter becomes someone the rest of the family, and perhaps even he, no longer recognizes. Can’t we relate? People change over the course of a life, and those changes scare us.

The title of the book is ironic, the best I can tell. The story seems to communicate that for all our freedom to travel, freedom to mobilize economically, freedom to exploit nature for economical profit, freedom to express sexuality with and however we want to, we really aren’t all that free, and in fact, we feel tortured much of the time. We become enslaved to the disastrous consequences of our decisions, especially the ones that take us further away from the people we love. The Berglunds, and even rock star Richard, spend a lifetime pursuing interests that wreck them each uniquely. It feels like U2 lyrics, “I can’t live/With or without you” and “I still haven’t found/What I’m looking for. Bono’s lament doesn’t seem far from Patty’s, when she begins to understand that Walter and her are the best and worst thing that happened to each other. What husband and wife that really last wouldn’t say the same about each other?

Book aside, I find it refreshing that Franzen integrates his passions for writing and bird watching. He approaches his craft of writing with fervor and discipline, locking himself in an Internet-less room for hours to write, purifying his work from distractions, rather than splurging a Twitter update in a busy coffee shop with three social network sites and two by-the-minute news sites minimized on his laptop. He has written about his concerns for contemporary writing in his nonfiction essays, including but not limited to “Perchance to Dream,” later retitled “Why Bother?” in How to be Alone, yet another intriguing title  from one who writes so much about family but intentionally spends so much time in solitude, and further isolates himself by gaining many-an-enemy with his words, and you aren’t quite sure if this bothers him at all.

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