Okay, so it’s so last year, but I got to it late, and things intervened. Nevertheless, the experience of reading ‘the novel of 2010’, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, has stayed with me, particularly in terms of how it works as a novel… and in terms, too, of the novel that I’m part way through writing at the moment.
Like a lot of readers I found Freedom admirable and frustrating at the same time, but certainly I found myself flying through it. What Franzen has said about his writing achieving a kind of transparency rings absolutely true – I felt that he was successfully dragging me through the page to bring me into direct and intimate contact with the characters and concerns that he had put there. Whichever character the novel was concentrating on at a particular point, and, especially, whatever issues and worries that character had, those were uppermost in my mind, rather than any pleasure of the text, or form, or language.
Insofar as the realist novel is supposed to be immersive, to put form entirely at the service of content – and that content to be a credible picture of the world, built from characters and ideas – then this was a near-exemplary realist novel. It showed a life that I recognised and happily responded to.
Which is not to say that I cared about the characters, particularly, but I heeded them. While I sometimes found them irritating, I very rarely found them boring. Franzen knows how to build characters and then articulate them in such a way that the abstract concerns (philosophical, political, social) that motivate them are eloquently played out, whether in dialogue, commentary or dramatic scenes.
Take, for example, the scene in which Walter (the environmentalist who, in trying to do save an endangered warbler, gets himself thoroughly entangled in the military-industrial complex) gives his little speech at his sponsor’s body armour plant and goes radically off-script. While I was in the scene, I was fully invested in Walter, and listened as carefully to his words as if I had been in the room:
It’s a perfect world, isn’t it? It’s a perfect system, because as long as you’ve got your six-foot-wide plasma TV, and the electricity to run it, you don’t have to think about any of the ugly consequences. You can watch Survivor: Indonesia till there’s no more Indonesia!
The problem is, once I’d closed the book, the points made started to evaporate, and the characters to ossify. I could remember great moments – the early, hilarious riff on Patty’s one-woman gentrification off her neighbourhood; her parents’ moral cowardice over her rape; the reactions of Walter and Katz to being surrounded by indie kids at a Bright Eyes gig; Patty’s rant about people wearing flip-flops outside (“It’s like the world is their bedroom”) – but the novel, once closed, closed up around itself. I wasn’t moved by the characters, and I wasn’t changed by their experiences.
I wondered why this was, why Franzen had failed to create living characters, when you’d think he would have wanted to, and had failed to get his political points across, when you’d think he would have wanted that too, and I came up with a possible answer: that there’s something else he cares about more than those two things, namely – patterns.
Freedom is governed by the patterns that the characters’ narrative arcs make over its duration, as they find their political and personal convictions – and this happens to every character – tested, broken and then redeemed. Walter, the environmentalist, gets mixed up in big business, and is then redeemed. Patty, the home-maker, helps destroy her own family, and is then redeemed. Their son, Joey, the nascent Republican, is shown the consequences of his business decisions, as is then redeemed. Every character, at some point, sexually betrays the person they love, and is redeemed. And, almost inevitably, every character seems to be mirrored in what they do by another. (Almost everything Joey does, in business and in sex, is an echo of what his father does.)
Franzen is more concerned with the pretty patterns his characters make over the moral and political plain of his fictional world, then the morality or politics of what they do and think.
And then the comparison struck me: in this, Franzen is no different from a writer he would presumably hate to be bracketed with: Tom Wolfe. Their politics are vastly different, but their processes are remarkably similar.
Similar, but different. Wolfe is like a boy with an amazing train set, who spends hours setting it up, with stations and bridges, and tunnels through the mountains, and little Styrofoam trees on the mountains, and then puts together two magnificent trains, places them at opposite points on the track, but facing each other, and sets them off, on course for a spectacular collision.
Franzen’s novels, when you break them down, look like something made with a Spirograph: pretty, and absorbing, but the endless symmetry becomes tiring, all the lines end up where they began, and you’re left with something that looks nothing like the real world. There’s the biggest irony of all – the freedom that Franzen’s characters are most denied is the freedom from authorial tyranny.
That’s the lesson of Freedom, for a writer… or a novelist at least… or perhaps just for this one. Patterns are form, and characters and ideas are content, and form kills content.