Back in the High Life Again
[P]eople ultimately only want to read about themselves. I’m taking this out of context from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, but not injudiciously, I don’t think. I read it as his thesis statement, not just for this novel, but for his whole project with fiction. People want to read about themselves. If you accept that, and want to be read, then what you write about, in a way that makes them feel not just real, but hyper-real, are normal, everyday people. You just do that American Beauty thing with them, and ‘look closer.'
Freedom looks very, very close.
But first, as for why I’m reading Freedom slightly after it hit instead of right when it did, that’s just my own ridiculous prejudices. Give me a choice, and I’ll go horror, fantasy, science fiction, thriller, police procedural, western, noir, anything but the ‘literary’ shelves, please. If it’s got a superstructure, a prebuilt scaffolding, a set of conventions to adhere to or stray from, then I’m there. Or, to say it different: I resisted The Corrections for a good year, maybe more, just assumed it was another oversubtle White Teeth clone, but without White Teeth’s, I don’t know, rollickingness. But I did finally buy one at a garage sale in Little Rock for a dollar, with the idea that maybe a nuclear winter was going to hit sometime soon and I was going to regret not having bought up all the doorstop books I’d ever tripped over.
I would say fast-forward here to months of that book stopping some actual door before I started reading it, and meanwhile let its accolades and controversy snowball behind me, forcing my face into those pages, but, I can’t lie: at the stoplight just feet from that garage sale, I cracked the cover, found the spine wonderfully unbroken, and fell into this boring, boring, boring story. And never wanted to leave. Until that very stoplight, I’d been preaching that Neal Stephenson was our best contemporary scene writer (I still will), that David Foster Wallace was something else, I forget just what (my memories would be all nostalgic and untrustable), and that Michael Chabon was far and away the strongest writer of prose on the current scene, maybe the best since Nabokov, or John Barth when he was really flying. And, to take nothing away from Chabon here—I still probably prefer his brand of storytelling—but Franzen, the strength of the writing he was pulling off in The Corrections, it made me feel like I was both treading water and trying to drink that water at the same time. Reading Chabon, I’m floating the whole time, yeah, my head well above water, a big smile on my face, but the buoyancy in his language, it’s from playfulness. He has such a light touch, such a grace with his sentences, all these little jokes, these tensions between the said and the unsaid. Where to stop, where to give the rhythm a couple more beats. I’m jealous. Franzen, though, his prose, it’s probably the most unforgivingly precise, in word choice, order, and punctuation, that I’ve seen, at least without feeling forced, without being polished until there’s no meaning left. No clue how he does that, either. Obviously.
All the same, though, after The Corrections, I guess I felt like people are always saying they feel after Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer: guilty, like they can’t rationally explain away the last three days, and kind of want to pretend they didn’t even happen. It’s an impulse I completely didn’t understand until The Corrections. I mean, I read Dan Brown’s recent one the night it was released, couldn’t stop talking about it. I burned through Meyer’s vampire fun in a weekend I’m completely proud of. But then I’m embarrassed to have fallen under the spell of a book everybody else is in love with as well? It’s not quite an inversion of the old everybody-loves-my-favorite-garage-band-so-I-can’t-anymore thing either, I don’t think. It’s more that, after insisting for so long and in so many forums that the magic of Philip K. Dick is that you lose nothing when translating his prose out of English—that’s it’s the story that matters, the writing’s just a lens to focus on that story—I was now having to admit that the strength of the writing alone can be enough as well. Because the story in The Corrections, it’s completely throwaway, to me at least. I prefer a dark elf fighting in some darker cave, trying to save a world that’s always hated him. Or an errant spaceship five hundred years in the past, careening into this solar system to make repairs. Or fanged things slobbering in the darkness. Or a gun in my protagonist’s face, making him think fast. Not a bloated-out story of some people I don’t care about getting old in America.
Through the strength of Franzen’s writing, that economical way he can render characters, the surprising ways he can undercut the expectations he’s just spend forty pages building—I did care. At least for the duration of the read. And what more can any writer ask for, right? No, the world wasn’t saved by these characters’ decisions or actions, and it’s finally kind of a bummer of a story, all told, but still, these people were drawn so well in words that they were absolutely real to me.
So, coming off that, I dove right into Franzen’s The Twenty-Seventh City, not at all heeding the warnings of friends, telling me The Corrections was the breakout, that I could go without what came before. Or, no, first I looked up some interviews with Franzen (especially his interchange with the FC2 crowd), tried to trace through the whole Oprah thing, and—especially recently, while touring for Freedom—Franzen, in spite of whatever real or staged abrasiveness is going on, seems genuinely committed to fiction. To writing, not just to being a writer. Such an important distinction. Granted, he chooses to occupy a kind of Cheever-Updike social strata in his fiction, but that was what was always fun with David Foster Wallace’s stuff, too, and what is fun with Brett Easton Ellis’: the vicarious thrill of identifying with these rich kids with their rich kid problems, which, it turns out, are no less vital than everybody else’s problems. To look at it through a lens I’m more familiar with: the reason we read about vampires so much? Because they’re elite, another class. That’s the attraction of Franzen’s stuff for me as well: I feel like I’m at that most-excellent party. I suspect that Tolstoy pulled a lot of readers in the same way, whether he was meaning to or not. You write what you know, I guess, and, if you’re lucky, it synchs up with people’s dissatisfaction with themselves. But that’s a lot more cynical than I’m intending.
All I mean to say is that the money, the privilege, the lack of real repercussions, all that—wow. Cool.
My friends were all right about Twenty-Seventh City, it turned out. It was beautifully written, exquisite, even, but also seemed to exist at a slight remove from the characters, just enough to dissociate me from becoming viscerally involved in the tensions, kind of like Stephen Wright’s Going Native, but without Going Native’s magic. So I ducked out. And, only right now, searching Amazon, do I see Franzen has a “Strong Motion,” too. Maybe someday.
Anyway, I said it was prejudice against ‘literary’ efforts that kept me from Freedom, but it was also the suspicion that Franzen had kind of blown his wad with The Corrections, that it was the Catch-22 he was going to be trying to outrun for the rest of his career. And, to be honest, the title didn’t help at all. Why not “Innocence,” or “Youth,” right? And, I mean, I was just coming off Handling the Undead, a pretty cool title for a really excellent zombie novel, so my standards were understandably high. However, I’m always telling people who look down their nose at the best seller lists that if you don’t read the books on the other side of the fence, then you’re not really in the game. And, for me, Freedom, with its vague, apply-anywhere title and its cover with a bird that doesn’t even look like it’s about to eat anything, and it already being an Oprah pick, it wasn’t just on the other side of the fence from me, it was glaring at me from over there.
So I Kindled it, thought I could just own it that way, not have to actually delve inside, but, man: just like last time, Franzen hooked me immediately. It’s a very Marquez opening, all epic and sweeping, and that first part, “Good Neighbors,” it’s seriously maybe the best opening I’ve seen since Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, or Tripmaster Monkey. However, each of those books finally couldn’t live up to their flashy start, couldn’t maintain integrity, started to crack up pretty soon. Not Freedom. And not just because it’s got all the show-off words that even Cormac McCarthy wouldn’t touch—furzed, propinquity, effectuate, sedulously, marmoreally, arrant (Franzen’s proud of ‘arrant’), each of them only used when they’re the absolute perfect word—and definitely not because it uses the text-messagy “OK” for “okay” (I have to suspect FSG house-styled this, as Franzen has to have too much prose integrity to allow this otherwise.
How else could you write at this caliber?), but because he’s having fun himself in there: “21ness,” “milfy,” “urbangentry,” “subtextless,” “smallening.” And that’s . . . I was going to say that’s just scratching the surface of this novel, but, really, what Franzen’s done with Freedom here, it’s somehow rig it such that the surface and the depths are all the same. That’s where his strength lies. Not in character insight or plot upheavals or dramatic tensions. He’s able to wed the craft with the art in a way that a lot of people never cue into, so that the resulting piece is organic, whole, uniform. I mean, I was considering excising some of his stronger sentences here, to highlight what he’s doing—and there’s some really good stuff—but as I dug and pored, I realized that culling a sentence to present here, it doesn’t do the novel justice, would be like bringing somebody a shard of a singing bowl, and saying doesn’t it sound cool?
All of which is vague for people looking for actual ‘review’ here, I know. But I’m not a reviewer. Certain books engage me more than others, and this is how I respond, I guess. To try a synopsis, man, you don’t need me at all. Just turn on the radio. Depeche Mode's “People are People,” Charlie McClain’s “Who’s Cheatin[g] Who.” Or, Hank Jr’s Major Moves album’s a really good counterpoint to listen to, while reading this novel. Worked for me, anyway. And, yeah, it probably gets mired down in politics more than some will like, is more topical than others will go for, and it definitely runs down a few too many rabbit holes in its effort to satisfy the completists (or: the completist writing it), and when it finally comes home to clean up the Shire, you’re definitely wondering is this going to end or not. But the writing. The writing keeps you going, and, like it or not, forty or fifty pages in, you’ve identified with these ‘urbangentry’ characters and their various, self-imposed dilemmas. More than that, you’re kind of addicted to them in a Jersey Shore kind of way: you tell yourself you want to watch the trainwreck, pretending all the while it’s not you driving that train.
As for what I finally take from Freedom, though? I’m back to the river, or fence, whatever it was dividing the commercial from the literary, and I’m coming to terms with the fact that some readers had their breath permanently taken away by The Virgin Suicides, say, while other readers are forever with Bilbo when the dwarves hoisted him up above the canopy of the dark forest, and it was a sea of butterflies. We’re all looking for different things when we go into a story, I mean. But certain books, if they’re written well enough, they can maybe bridge across to the other side. And, if Freedom’s the literary side’s offering, trying to woo us across with the undeniable strength of its writing, with the power of its storytelling, then, I don’t know, maybe The Passage is the commercial side’s attempt, trying to do away with all the prejudices allying vampires with writing that doesn’t care about itself. But how to ever get either side to see these offerings as anything but wooden horses, right? As Philip K. Dick might have said, therein lies the wub.