8 June 2012

Jonathan Franzen: Freedom (2010)

In an interview with [t]o find an adequate narrative vehicle for the most difficult stuff at the core of me.' Hmm. There's obviously a great concern for the environment in the novel, it has glaring Democratic sympathies, and there are evident worries about technology causing, say, generational conflict (although surely the novel also says something positive about the availability of instant news on tap?). But to me those things are the backcloth to the main events in the book.

Franzen says that Americans already know what they've lived though, but I'm not so sure that many people notice social changes: it's in our nature to concentrate on the little things in the present and in so doing fail to notice how a gradual build-up creates (sometimes huge) social changes. Anyway, we should be reminded of these changes, and I think Franzen reminds us well, if perhaps unintentionally. For instance, we have a multicultural society that most people seem to accept (such as Walter's cross-generational relationship with the Indian Lalitha), and there is a certain amount of gender reversal (such as Lalitha's confident (even reckless) driving), and both Lalitha and (to a certain extent) Jenna take the sexual initiative with Walter and Joey respectively.

A number of writers have been mentioned in relation to Franzen – DeLillo, Pynchon, Philip Roth, etc, but I feel the presence of Reynolds Price more than almost any other: sex (pre-martial, extra-marital, etc) is of great importance here, and its effects can be really devastating, particularly on the future of the family. And the family is also very important in Price's work, especially in relation to genetic behavior, notably where alcoholism is concerned: Price's characters can either go with the genetic drink flow, or resist, just as Walter Berglund resists his negative inheritance in Freedom.

Above all, though, I feel the presence of Franzen's late friend David Foster Wallace. There's not the same digressive content as with Wallace, but some of the characters could have come straight out of Wallace's fiction. Joey and Connie have a rather familiar wackiness, particularly when Joey swallows his wedding ring and manually fishes about for it in his turds in the toilet pan. (I'm undecided about Richard Katz, the addictive type who takes forever to grow up because he plays guitar and therefore has the freedom to poke his dick into as many holes as he chooses.)

Stephen Burn once suggested that Wallace was moving fiction beyond the cynical postmodernist impasse and onto a more human, caring level. Maybe this is what Franzen is alluding to in that quotation at the beginning of this post, and he's picking up the torch? It's worth a thought.

Addendum 1: Ann Tyler, I note, doesn't like Patty, which I find slightly odd: I sympathize with anyone who's been raped, and find it impossible to judge someone who has suffered such torture.

Addendum 2: I've also added a link to Franzen's fascinating essay about 'Status' and 'Contract' writers below.

Jonathan Franzen: Telegraph interview with Helena de Bertodano

'Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books', by Jonathan Franzen

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