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More Freedom


Since SEK brought it up…

Since what I have to say is predominantly negative, I should say that Freedom is not without its pleasures and accomplishments. Ruth Franklin’s bottom line, I think, is essentially correct:

The commotion surrounding the publication of this pseudo-masterpiece reminds me of Orwell’s mordant observation that “to apply a decent standard to the ordinary run of novels is like weighing a flea on a spring-balance intended for elephants. On such a balance as that a flea would simply fail to register; you would have to start by constructing another balance which revealed the fact that there are big fleas and little fleas.” Freedom is a big flea, perhaps even a giant one. But if Franzen is the best we’ve got, he still isn’t good enough. His literary edifices have the look of greatness, but greatness eludes them.

One could turn this around and put it a bit more charitably — once you’ve abandoned the idea that Freedom is a Masterpiece of American Literachoor, it can be enjoyed as an engaging if very uneven minor novel. And I won’t deny that I downed the long novel in a week with plenty of other stuff to do. So why I am I (like Franklin and Scott) not inclined to charity?

Well, it’s hard to deny that the embarrassing critical overhype affects the reader, but it’s not Franzen’s fault that his book was in fact lauded as a Masterpiece of American Literachoor in a glowing NYT review cover review by the editor. The bigger problem is that throughout the book Franzen the would-be Great American Novelist is at war with Franzen the creator of entertaining romantic conflicts among characters that at his best can be interesting, and the tension can be intensely irritating. There’s a broad thematic problem: if you all but make “My Attempt To Prove That the Great American Novel Isn’t A Punchline” the subtitle, you’d better have better overarching themes than banalities and half-truths such as “the benefits of freedom are frequently illusory” and “liberal elitists love people in the abstract and hate them in practice.” (And as Scott says, the cartoonish nature of the Straussian war pig and the reactionary neighbor make the latter theme even worse; like bad Aaron Sorkin, it’s liberal elitism at its most self-refuting.)

Scott has already cherrypicked the convenient instant death of a female character out of a Houellebecq novel — love the “women in refrigerators” term, which is new to me — so let me give some more examples of how Franzen’s maladroit attempts to play the social critic undermine the novel’s strengths. He can’t stop with having Walter serve an arugula salad — in case you missed how hackneyed the cliche is, Richard has to inform the reader that he’s “among the gentry.” Then there’s Patty comparing her winger neighbor to Ken Starr. I can forgive the apolitical Patty suddenly expressing standard liberal thoughts of the kind Walter would — impeachment is a unique event. But I can’t forgive the fact that the comparison is ridiculous — the redneck who happily allows his daughter to shack up with their teenage neighbor under his roof has, apart from his conservatism, nothing in common with the prissy, moralistic, ultra-establishment Starr, and Patty surely would see that. And perhaps my favorite example is when Franzen, because he has some highly uninteresting thoughts to share with the reader about rock (and literary) celebrities has the hipper-than-hip aspiring musician suddenly express a strong, earnest interest in the Grammies and Sheryl Crow when interviewing Katz.

Freedom isn’t a bad novel. But, on balance, you have to score one for Weiner/Picoult — it’s impossible to imagine this novel getting anything like the kind of hosannas it has with a woman’s name on the cover.

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