Of all the ways to write about America at the dawn of the 21st century, this is, undoubtedly, the most mediocre. The phrase “swinging for the fences” is not apt to this book. Like the dull lives of the middle-class characters it details, exhaustively, over 600 pages, there is very little to make the heart race in Freedom. You don’t get the swagger of Tom Wolfe, or the indignation of Philip Roth. What you get is Jonathan Franzen, the milquetoast to end all milquetoasts, painstakingly doling out all the pet peeves of America’s chattering classes. It’s like reading a blog by the Normals, of Liberalton, where dissatisfaction is as endless as the stream of words. For all the handwringing, it’s a miracle the author could type.
Oh, piss off, Franzen…you long to shout, as he embarks on yet another dissection of conjugal woe. Freedom is the story of a marriage, told over the span of thirty-odd years, between unhappy amateur novelist Patty, and her husband, the ever-loyal environmentalist, Walter. We also hear a lot about their son, the capitalist asswipe, Joey, and Walter’s best friend, the musician, Richard. As befits a novel aiming for Literary status (even when its plot is reminiscent of Desperate Housewives), there are several chapters written by Patty herself, to tick the Unreliable Narrator box on Franzen’s “Get Me a Pulitzer” checklist, and a last chapter which may-or-may-not actually happen; thus ticking off Meta-Fiction.
What’s missing is anything resembling a pulse. Say what you want about the often dubious motives behind some of Tom Wolfe’s fiction, but The Bonfire of the Vanities has everything that Freedom lacks: race, religion, and good jokes are all but absent from Franzen’s vanity project. Everything is so well-mannered; it stifles the life out of the book. It’s like reading a college application essay; whereas Tom Wolfe reads like the brazen poetry from a bathroom wall. In Freedom, a major plotline revolves around endangered birds, for God’s sake. Even an ornithologist would concede that’s not much of a “grabber” as a premise. Franzen’s point is made: yes, the environment is boring, and that’s why we don’t worry about it enough. But that doesn’t seem like a strong argument for having to wade through several thousand words on Cerulean Warblers. At least in Moby Dick, Melville killed the whale after all that guff about whaling.
What is there, literally, left to say, if all you’re going to write about are the sex lives of rich white folk? I know John Updike made a career out of this. But Updike was catty and vain and, frankly, a giant slut. Franzen is a choirboy by comparison. He only writes about sex so much because, well, what else do people do? We learn more than enough about Walter’s stultifying job. Patty doesn’t work. Joey only works to illustrate military-industrial hubris in a plotline that isn’t developed sufficiently. So sex seems a good alternative in a story that otherwise revolves around birds. But it isn’t enough to sustain 600 pages. There’s nothing profound to what Franzen has to say. It reads like the limp misgivings of the inert.
Philip Roth is more my kind of writer. If Freedom were written by Roth, ok, Walter would be fixated with sex, and Patty would be an emasculating monster. But they kinda are like that already. It’s just that Jonathan Franzen is too wussy and objective to say it. Most of my favourite writers are tabloid at heart: subjective, irrational, thrill-seeking jerks, with talent to burn and no compunctions about fairness. A leftie with a conscience, like Franzen, only sounds shrill when he gets worked up about corporate culture or the state of the environment. Philip Roth is an asshole and a leftie, so his indignation takes pleasure in outrage (and outraging those he hates). What Freedom lacks, more than God, is recklessness.
In June of this year there was a photograph, taken during the riots in Vancouver, of a couple lying down kissing in the middle of street, while police with batons charged around them. It’s clear the couple couldn’t give a damn about anything but getting laid, rightthissecond. But the image is heroic, nonetheless. It says: we want each other, even as the world burns. The insane, risk-it-all, throw-your-hat-(and your pants)-into-the-ring dynamic…is what Freedom should be all about, and yet, resolutely, isn’t. Jonathan Franzen doesn’t have enough soul. He’s too afraid of not being taken seriously. There’s a “properness” to his writing that makes your heart wilt. Be unabashed, you bastard! What else is freedom good for?