Learning from ‘Freedom’: reading Franzen as a writer

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.

I preferred the US cover. Am I just a sucker for kitsch?

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.

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3 comments

  1. Philip

    What you say about (a) patterns and (b) forgettability is interesting in relation to Charles May’s blogpost on David Means’s ‘The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934’ (http://may-on-the-short-story.blogspot.com/2010/11/david-means-tree-line-kansas-1934.html). One of the below the line comments laments that the characters in Means’s story are caricatures, which is a common criticism of Means’s stuff: all those FBI agents, bank robbers, pan-handle drifters, seemingly lifted straight out of the book of archetypes. But as May points out (I agree) Means – although on the surface a realist – often doesn’t seem to be interested in the fully-realised, ‘living’ character so much as he is interested in patterns, whether it be inward spirals (‘The Spot’), or widening cones (‘Railroad Incident’), or, as in ‘The Tree Line’, a back and forth oscillation between vantage points. The difference (and here the fact that I haven’t read Freedom might let me down) seems to be that the patterns you attribute to Franzen are based on character arcs (which are, I suppose, a kind of content) whereas the patterns evident in Means’s stories are more properly formal or structural. A number of critics have found this aspect of his work unsatisfying, presenting a cold surface where they would have preferred to experience – what? – a greater sense of the recognisably ‘human’. On the presence of humanity in one of his stories (‘Hunger’), Means said: ‘I’d venture to say it is in the structure of the story itself, in the way it turns back around itself and the fact that these souls are still out there, moving forward.’ I’ve read that story a number of times and have not found the structure especially enlightening, but clearly an intention is at work. Perhaps Franzen, a good friend of Means, is shooting for the same thing. Of course, you could say that the short story is (or can be) more about form than content, but, as May’s blog suggests, that insistence on the formal has a far wider application…

  2. Jonathan Gibbs

    Philip, you’re right about the patterns in ‘Freedom’ being patterns of content rather than form – at least while you’re reading the novel. Once it’s finished, I’d say, they reveal themselves as formal: there is a narrative shape to the novel (in the way that the widening cone of Means’s ‘Railroad Incident’ is a narrative shape), but the narrative shape of ‘Freedom’ is, in the end, less distinct than the arcs and symmetries the characters make in their attitudes and behaviour.

    The difference between Franzen and Means, and novel and short story more generally, is a fascinating one. Personally, I don’t have a problem with a novel being formal, or patterned at all; it’s more a case that the patterns work against the novel’s assumed commitment to the benign chaos of realism… assumed, as I assume Franzen would want his novel to be thought of as a realist novel, whereas I wouldn’t necessarily make the same claim for Means.

    Finally, on patterning, this from Tom McCarthy in 3am Magazine (article here): “We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.” Though I don’t think he’s talking about global narrative structure, he’s talking about fiction tackling structure and space as a theme: structure as content, rather than is content.

  3. Lee Monks

    ‘The problem is, once I’d closed the book, the points made started to evaporate, and the characters to ossify.’

    I completely agree: I can remember little beyond a turd and a ring by now. Was it a turd and a ring?

    ‘…the novel, once closed, closed up around itself.’

    A tremendous way to put it, really. It leaves little trace of not a great deal. This is not to say I didn’t fly through it, as you did, but it has a terribly unhappy afterlife.

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