25 October, 2010

The Duchess Reads . . .

"Freedom," by Jonathan Franzen
It is widely known by now that the most anticipated, the most lauded, and perhaps the most commonly purchased book of the year (at least until the release of Keith Richards's memoir, "Life") is by Jonathan Franzen, that boy-wonder of contemporary fiction whose immediately previous novel, "The Corrections", practically set the rest of the 9/11 world on fire.  With "Freedom", Mr. Franzen places his worn finger on the pulse of a maturing (though no less mature) world; that finger relievingly scratches an itch for realistic exploration of human nature, and irritatingly pokes us where it hurts most. 

"Freedom" centers its own develpment on the trajectory of growth of the Berglund family.  Like all families, the Berglund one can be schematically characterized as a tree:  In its youth, a strong, united trunk whose rings represent solid years of growth and connectivity; in its maturation, a fractured bevy of limbs remotely conjoined to a rotting foundation; its color and pattern deciduously falling to the ground ascatter.

To the Duchess's mind, at least, this is the essence of "Freedom":  the tragedy of the family, and the destructiveness of the bonds created out of that primal emotional ooze.  For all of our self-assertions and our efforts at independence, we are but manque-dreamers.  We exercise the intoxicating freedoms of adulthood -- the ability to marry, the ability to enjoy unfettered access to sex (at least some of us), and the ability to avail ourselves of education and paying jobs (and let us not forget the nectar of Dionysus) -- only to bind ourselves ever more completely to the countervailing interests of others (our spouses, our children, our friends, our coworkers).  And we find, as we go along, that Freedom is unattainable, holy grail that it is.  Or rather, that its attainability is relegated to that vast, labrynthine landscape between our ears.  And we are mere pawns to the enslaving forces of government, capitalism, Freudian compulsions, and . . . .  Well, Freudian compulsions pretty much sums it up. 

There is no need to delve deeply into the plotline of "Freedom".  That was explicated sufficiently in Mr. Sam Tanenhaus's review (Mr. Tanenhaus is The Editor of The Book Review), which was glowing and deferential besides.  Not a knock at all.  The book is entitled to its fair share of glowing deference.  But not for the reasons, necessarily, enumerated by Mr. Tanenhaus.  [NB:  Perhaps the TLS got it right.  For what it's worth, "Freedom" is very American in its flavor and thus its rendering may be difficult to digest across the Pond.]

No, "Freedom" engages in the usual liberal post-modern polemics expected of Book Review cover material:  Franzen hyphenates "bush-league" for a reason (it did not go unnoticed, Sir), and sends up even as he embraces the peroxided, Parliament-smoking, freewheeling single mother living next to the Berglunds in suburban St. Paul (it did not go unnoticed, Sir).  The "progressives" engage in mountaintop removal coal-mining; the rock stars turn down opportunities to sleep with teenaged girls; and the beautiful Jewish daughters of wealthy families go to Duke.  Accurate?  Of course.  But To Hell With All That.  Franzen's dead-on politico-cultural caricatures are no match for his dead-on observations of the frustration and heartbreak of family life.

Yes, the Duchess is aware of its joys.  Things begin beautifully early.  An ecologically-minded family man settles down with an athletic, energetic and devoted wife and would-be mother:  they spawn intelligent and endearing children.  Sounds familiar, does it not?  But things unravel, as they necessarily do when near-perfection is our starting point.  The women begin to hunt the men rabidly, and indefatigably; affairs run rampant; passive-aggression sets in like a cancer.  Eventually, we're left to review the dreams and aspirations of our former selves, and to compare them to our current situations.  Our adult children are distant.  We've compromised our morals.  Dark pockets of secrecy emerge between us and our spouses, like mud puddles after a rain.  All the things we strove for, and never attained, haunt us endlessly.  Til human voices wake us and we drown indeed.

For all of its realism "Freedom" isn't quite so depressing as the thoughts provoked by its reading.  (Perhaps that's because a good half of the cast of characters are tied to the apron strings of the pharmaceutical companies; we can't even obtain Freedom from our Celexa, our Valium, our Lexapro (and let's not even discuss our Sauvignon Blanc).)  Rather one may take an optimist's view of things.  When mired in our own muck, we always may rely on the giants of contemporary fiction to universalize our experiences, and to remind us that whatever brand of Freedom we choose, there are many, many others in the checkout line with us. 

Does Franzen capitalize on the self-indulgent depression of the upwardly mobile middle class, with our Volvos, and our assistants, and our gym memberships, and our credit cards, and our rambling Victorian renovations?  He does.  But he chastises while he sympathizes, giving us just enough sugar to make the medicine go down.

And so the Duchess recommends "Freedom", and Mr. Franzen apart from it all.  We're of the same mind when it comes to certain things.  This past February, Mr. Franzen contributed to The Guardian what he believed were ten serious rules to abide by for aspiring writers.  To wit,

#4.    Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.
#10.  You have to love before you can be relentless.

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