Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Franzenpants

It is with great, great trepidation that I review Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, not the least because other reviewers insist on comparing it to Tolstoy.

Mainly, because the glut of adoring reviews of Franzen by the The New York Times touched off a wave of pushback by other writers, pointing out that the Times review page is massively skewed towards reviewing works by white male authors (true) and that two reviews of Franzen's book, while ignoring a slew of others, was patently unfair (not quite sure I agree with that).

The Huffington Post published an interview with Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner about Franzengate. I was somewhat relieved that both women came across as warm, funny, and utterly unpretentious. They also made some damn good points about the unfortunate gender divide in the literary world, specifically among fiction writers. However, and this is the part where I look duly ashamed, Picoult and Weiner write exactly the kind of books I'm not inclined to pick up (I have read one or two of Picoult's novels, I did not find them particularly memorable, but she can laugh all the way to the bank with her three number one NYT bestseller debuts).

The Atlantic's Chris Jackson wrote a similarly sheepish article about having to make a conscious effort to read women writers. Jackson notes that while women are, by far, the largest consumers of fiction and (based on sales) seem rather equally likely to read men and women authors, the same can't be said of male readers - and that Weiner and Picoult's point about the imbalance of fiction reviews is not just sour grapes, but a sad statistical fact.

Which, eurgh. And ouch. Because while I don't choose books based on the gender of the author, I admit that my reading probably skews a little more male-author-heavy than female, and I admit to avoiding romance novels, anything with a high heel, lipstick, or wedding dress on the cover, and having a general aversion to picking up a book that's immediately and obviously marketed towards women. Which is not to say that I don't read and enjoy women authors - I do - but I'm extremely unlikely to pick up anything in the "Women's Literature" section, which I'd like to think says more about my reading preferences (heavy on the history, epidemiology, and science fiction sides) than a personal bias.

But as Picoult and Weiner point out, a whole subsection of fiction has been stigmatized simply because it's designed to appeal to women, which seems rather unfair, and not just unfair, but downright stupid in the much-ballyhooed Sunset of the Printed Word, especially given that women purchase more books than men. As Melissa Silverstein points out, women's dollars are just as green as men's. Of course, there's a lot of assumption going on here, first and foremost the assumption that if a book is written by a woman, it's de facto going to be a fluffy romance, which we know is not the case, but the double standard that Picoult and Weiner bemoan (if a man writes it about love, life, death, etc., it's Literature-with-a-capital-L, if a woman does, it's, in Weiner's words, a "beach read") remains. And of course, there is the Literature/commercial fiction divide, and the enduring concept that once something is popular, it's no longer good.

But oh my God, all that aside, back to Freedom. In a similar vein to The Corrections, Franzen creates a handful of characters (the Berglund family and aging rocker Richard Katz) and spends 500-plus pages focusing, with laserlike intensity and microscopic focus, on their travails.

Which, meh. Perhaps it's because I'm in the middle of Peter Massie's Peter the Great, but after reading about Peter's colossus-like, world-shaking reach, the small disappointments and minor triumphs of a white-bread Midwestern family are just not that compelling.

Anyway. Freedom follows Patty and Walter Berglund, said upper-class white Midwestern couple, through a series of crises, mid-life and otherwise, and their steadily eroding relationship with each other, their children, and their mutual friend Richard. Patty is an excellent basketball player, the misfit product of two liberal, do-gooding parents whose three other children, having been duly encouraged to be Creative and Follow Their Dreams, are inadequately equipped to survive without Mom and Dad's cash and encouragement. The black sheep by virtue of her success and independence, Patty is reviled by her siblings and ignored by her parents.

Her athletic dreams are dashed by a career-ending injury, and Patty settles for marrying steadfast, sweet Walter. Like Patty, he's the sole success story in his family (alcoholic father, feckless brothers, martyr-like mother). Patty and Walter move to a crumbling neighborhood as the first wave of gentrification, where Walter goes to work for an environmental nonprofit while Patty, determined not to repeat her parents' mistakes (which guarantees that you'll just make a set of different, equally awful ones) becomes a devoted stay-at-home mom.

Complicating this apparent domestic bliss is Patty's continuing obsession with Walter's college friend, moderately successful musician Richard Katz. Richard and Walter are the oddest of odd couples, but their friendship has endured, and Patty and Richard have managed not to fall into bed with each other. You see where this is going.

In short order, Patty and Walter produce two children, and Patty's relationship with their son Joey is the seed of their family's unraveling. Joey is a jackass, but an intelligent and precocious jackass. Patty pours all her love and affection into Joey, who, in the grand manner of children everywhere, promptly returns it by moving in with the loathsome family next door at sixteen.

And, and. Blah blah blah. Patty and Richard, obviously, tumble into bed with each other, Walter eventually finds out and retaliates by having an affair of his own with his comely young assistant. His professional life unravels after a number of unsavory deals he's made with a mining company come to light, but his subsequent meltdown pave the way for him to pass himself off as a radical environmental activist. Patty moves out, his new ladylove is conveniently squooshed on a twisty mountain road, his son marries the creepy, depressive daughter of the next-door neighbors, and he and his estranged wife descend into six years of radio silence.

Perhaps I can't forgive Franzen for being, at the heart of it all, a believer in the Happy Ending. Without giving too much away, it all shakes out more or less all right in the end, with Patty and Walter reconciling and their relationship with their kids becoming more or less tolerable. Walter even gets his beloved bird sanctuary.

Freedom is interspersed with chunks of autobiography written by Patty at her therapist's behest. Wry and funny, Patty-the-author is perhaps more interesting than Patty-the-woman. It's hard to feel too sorry for the Berglund's trials, particularly not after Joey makes nearly a cool million before he's legally allowed to drink after selling a few tons of worthless truck parts to the US military (if you think that's far-fetched, you didn't read the Rolling Stone profile of the World's Littlest Arms Dealers). Perhaps it's the recession and the pall of despair that is still hanging over everyone, but it's very, very hard for me to scrape up sympathy for people who aren't struggling with anything but their own stupidity and are cushioned with plenty of privilege and cash to absorb the slings and arrows of postmodern life.

Particularly off-putting is Joey's teenage amour and later wife, Connie Monaghan, a human-shaped hole of despair and obsession who manages to be simultaneously disturbing and completely disinteresting. It is rather satisfying to see Patty finally fashion a life that's relatively fulfilling and more-or-less happy, after the pit of sadness and discontent that comprises her thirties and forties, and her return to Walter is something of a disappointment.

One thing that Franzen absolutely nails, nails so completely that you have to stand up and pace for a moment, is the conversation that Patty and her mother, Joyce, have after Patty's father's death. If any reader has had that conversation with a parent when anger and bitterness have really, truly dissipated, and all that remains is dispassionate curiousity about why a parent has done some particularly hurtful thing - not recrimination, just a desire to know what they were thinking - and experienced the parent's skillful evasion, they'll know exactly what Patty is feeling.

So. Freedom. Read it, or don't. It's good, overall, and ironically, I imagine it'll appeal to readers who would also like Picoult and Weiner. It's also about marriage, and love, and death - Literature-with-a-capital-L or chic lit?? You be the judge!

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