My review of Jonathan Franzen‘s new novel, Freedom, is in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. It’s standard operating procedure to clip the beginning of the review, but I want to point to a few sentences a little lower in the piece, in order to get at one of the reasons why I think the novel doesn’t quite come off:
Throughout the novel are glimpses of people who are more coddled by art than inspired by it. A rock club is full of fans of a “gentler and more respectful way of being . . . more in harmony with consuming.” When Richard gives an interview saying rock “never had any subversive edge,” the provocation is subsumed into blogosphere noise. But writing can hurt, Franzen insists, and art can reshape us.
“Richard” is Richard Katz, a musician friend of the couple at the center of the novel, and something of a mouthpiece for the frustration/contempt/weltschmerz Franzen feels toward the way culture is made and consumed in America. There’s no question that Franzen is a firm believer in the power of storytelling—the whole novel is a study in how the stories we tell one another or ourselves can have a huge impact, sometimes literally wound us. Yet in nearly every scene in which Richard arrives, Franzen appears to be wringing his hands over the usefulness of pursuing art in a society that’s dead to it. It’s a valuable question, but Franzen pursues it awkwardly, and doesn’t resolve it in a satisfying way.
The problem is that, within the structure of Freedom, Richard can’t win regardless how much or little he succeeds. His first band, the Traumatics, is a poor-selling but critically acclaimed punk band that puts out grim-titled albums like Greetings From the Bottom of the Mine Shaft. He’s a smart guy who’s engaged in a pointless pursuit according to Patty Berglund, who narrates the bulk of the Traumatics’ history: The band is dedicated, she writes, “to releasing further wryly titled records that a certain kind of critic and about five thousand people in the world liked to listen to, and doing small-venue gigs attended by scruffy, well-educated white guys who were no longer as young as they used to be.” Richard sings angry all-caps lyrics (“A wall of Regis Philbins! I tell you I’m starting to feel/INSANELY HAPPY! INSANELY HAPPY!”) but not many are listening—though Walter, Patty’s husband and Richard’s friend, is among that enthusiastic 5,000.
When people are listening, the deadness of art-making is even worse. Richard later starts a new band that releases an album of polite folk-rock, and it becomes a hit, “the perfect little Christmas gift to leave beneath tastefully trimmed trees in several hundred thousand NPR-listening households.” That mild sneering about popular art expands a few times in the course of the novel. First in an interview where Richard rails about the relationship between art and mass-consumption and iPods:
We in the Chiclet-manufacturing business are not about social justice, we’re not about accurate or objectively verifiable information, we’re not about meaningful labor, we’re not about a coherent set of national ideals, we’re not about wisdom. We’re about choosing what WE want to listen to and ignoring everything else. We’re about ridiculing people who have the bad manners not to want to be cool like us. We’re about giving ourselves a mindless feel-good treat every five minutes.
The feeling of contempt only deepens when Richard heads to Washington, DC, and attends a show by indie-rock cause celebre Conor Oberst at the 9:30 Club. Richard takes in the crowd:
…left to themselves to ritually repudiate, for an hour or two on a Saturday night, the cynicism and anger of their elders. They seemed…to bear malice toward nobody. Katz could see it in their clothing, which bespoke none of the rage and disaffection of the crowds he’d been a part of as a youngster. They gathered not in anger but in celebration of their having found, as a generation, a gentler and more respectful way of being. A way, not incidentally, more in harmony with consuming. And so said to him: die.
So how to justify the effort of producing a brick of literature—art!—in 2010 when you’ve expended a lot of effort in its pages dismissing the utility of art, popular or not? A little strangely and unsatisfyingly, it turns out. Franzen has Patty, a woman not especially inclined to reading in his characterization, consume War and Peace, finding parallels in its pages with her own life. (In turn she’ll write her own set of pages that’ll have an impact on her family, pages written in an expert style that recalls a certain American novelist named Jonathan Franzen. Later, people will comment on how well-written those pages are.) And without giving too much of the plot away, it becomes clear that Walter internalized the Traumatics catalog deeply enough to go on an all-caps rant of his own, in a hokey, forced set piece. Awkwardly enough, Franzen is on better footing dismissing the value of art than he is asserting it. And if that’s the case, why bother?
It’s not as if Franzen hasn’t spent serious time trying to answer that question. In his excellent 1996 essay, “Perchance to Dream,” (subscription req’d), he argued that as a novelist he was obligated to look at the big picture, to defend the social novel, even as he was despairing over living in a time when there was no real audience for it. (The essay is a kind of defense of the novel that a certain kind of critic and about five thousand people in the world like.) So Franzen knew, going in, that writing a novel like Freedom would put him in a bind. He writes in the Harpers essay:
The American writer today faces a totalitarianism analogous to the one with which two generations of Eastern Bloc writers had to contend. To ignore it is to court nostalgia. To engage with it, however, is to risk writing fiction that makes the same point over and over: technological consumerism is an infernal machine, technological consumerism is an infernal machine…
Freedom is no nostalgia piece, and there’s much to admire in it—it reads beautifully, has an admirable scope, and the extended parts about bird population and coal mining are less draggy than they have any right to be, even with one long scene literally taking place in a conference room. But it’s a novel with that persistent, irritating drumbeat in the background—technological consumerism is an infernal machine…—and while Franzen obviously threw his best effort into stifling that noise, to cover it up in singing prose and intimate characterizations, the platitude just keeps welling up.