IF Jonathan Franzen indeed used any of his ill-gotten 2002 NEA grant money on the writing of his novel Freedom, American taxpayers should ask for their money back.
I didn’t read the novel—it’s too expensive. I did stand in a chain bookstore for more than thirty minutes yesterday perusing a few chunks of it. I wanted to see if I was being fair to the book’s author. Maybe he’d surprise me. He did. The book is worse than I expected. The effect is like being promised a full course dinner, then when the cover to the silver platter on the dinner table is lifted you’re presented with a single pea.
I was looking for ideas. A book presented as a great novel should contain deep, sweeping, or striking ideas. The ideas in Freedom are so ridiculous that for a moment I wondered if I was being put on. I asked myself whether the work was a parody of a great novel. I considered whether the hyper-promotion accompanying the book’s publication was a giant hoax, like the hysteria of manmade global warming theory but on an only slightly smaller scale.
The problem isn’t merely that the discussions about issues are superficial and sophomoric, or that the issues are highly questionable—overpopulation, and the destruction of birds by cats!?! The issues are dramatically unexciting. They impinge only tangentially on the lives of the characters—or so it appears in my quick reading—and are hardly necessary for creating narrative drive. They’re not compelling issues, are they?
Polemics in a novel can be a good thing but only if the polemics are used properly. Ayn Rand is nothing but polemics and the polemics are on every page, necessary for the very existence of the work, the issues an intrinsic part of the characters’ lives, and so her novels burst with energy. In Frank Norris’s The Octopus, a truly great novel, the issue for the ranchers involved is one of their very survival. They also connect with the larger theme of colliding economic forces which toss human beings to the side. The speeches in the book are compelled by the story.
In contrast, the discussions in Freedom come across as a bunch of comfortable rich people talking. Cats killing birds isn’t quite a life-and-death matter. It’s more on the order of rich-guy-is-bored-with-his-life kind of thing, so again, perhaps the book is satire, and maybe I should give it a full reading, if the book for a moment appeared interesting enough for a full reading.
Where ideas in literature are concerned, we’ve come a long way from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, haven’t we? Maybe the educated class killing off God wasn’t such a good idea.
I have no doubt that some people in our society actually hold ideas as portrayed in Freedom. As I mention in the post below this one, Franzen’s novel resembles By Love Possessed by James Gould Cozzens with its WASPy main character filled with cranky upper-class paranoia about the changing world. In Franzen’s case the paranoia is about too many poor people having too many babies—and their accompanying population of cats!
It’s to laugh, it’s to laugh.