Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Freedom by Aretha Franz- er, I mean by Jonathan Franzen

I'm not going to give a long review of Freedom here. I think the book's been pretty much dissected to death and its completely critic proof now that Franzen has been beatified by The New York Times and canonised by Oprah. But I do want to talk about two aspects of the novel that got under my skin if you'll indulge me... 

I didn't hate Freedom but I certainly didn't feel the same level of engagement that I had with Franzen's previous novel, The Corrections; the tics and flaws that were present in that book (which I largely ignored because I was enjoying the story so much) overwhelmed me this time. And the humor was largely absent. (I can pretty much forgive a book anything if its funny).

I think my lack of engagement wasn't the dated eco plot (Franzen really needs to watch Hans Rosling on TED) but rather the fact that none of Franzen's characters talked or acted like real people, which isn't a problem in say, a science fiction novel, but in a book like this it's crucial. Everyone in Freedom, rich and poor, New Yorker or Minnesotan, Gentile or Jew, converses like a Brooklyn hipster. In general no one stuttered or had trouble with their words, no one used slang or colloquialisms. No one really cursed except for the cliched West Virginia racist. Sure they all have different points of view and agendas and locales but when they talk they all sound like Jonathan Franzen. This book makes me wonder if Franzen has a good ear for working class dialogue or indeed for dialogue not uttered by middle class college educated white collar white people.

One example. On page 238 Carol Monaghan the gauche, lower class neighbour (of course she had to be Irish) has the following conversation with the spoiled, preppie Joey who has been dating her daughter Connie:

"I'm not her boyfriend, we're on hiatus." 
"What is hiatus? What does that mean?"
"It means we're experimenting with being apart."
"That's not what Connie tells me. Connie tells me you want her to go to school so she can learn administrative skills and be your assistant in your endeavours."

Carol doesn't understand the word hiatus but she says "administrative skills" and "endeavours"? Hmmm. Ok, perhaps she was just asking for clarification from Joey as to what he meant by "hiatus" which is fair enough, but she still replies in fully formed sentences and uses such unlikely words as "endeavours" even as she boils with rage. Her husband's farting cracks her up but she talks like she's teaching English composition at Barnard. Carol is too poised, too aware. In fact everyone in Freedom is too aware, too cool, too post modern. This is America in the George W Bush Presidency? Who were you hanging with, Jonathan? The rest of us were scared shitless.

I didn't buy Carol and I didn't buy most of the other characters in the book. I don't believe they exist anywhere but in Franzen's imagination and I found this to be a big problem. If he wants to write a book about people who act and talk like that he should. Set it in Williamsburg and everything be fine. Except that everybody hates hipsters and no one wants to read about them. Disguising them as simple Mid Westerners doesnt fly.

For me Patty's journal was by far the most successful part of Freedom. I thought it was funny, charming and it often hilariously veered into the territory of romance fiction. I loved it. In fact I kind of wished the whole book had been Patty's journal and he'd cut everything else. We would have seen that she was not a reliable narrator and we would have bought her voice. But dipping out of the journal and seeing her in the context of the rest of the novel was jarring. Now Patty didn't really sound like Patty. Now she sounded like Jonathan Franzen self consciously attempting a tour de force. 

Of course everyone in a David Mamet movie talks like David Mamet, it's his signature style, but novelists can't coast on style for 500 pages. And although polyphony is very hard, it's worth trying to get right. Two novels Franzen name checks in the book are V and War and Peace. Franzen would no doubt cringe at the comparison, but Tolstoy and Pynchon both pull off polyphony effortlessly.
The only other big issue I have with the book and with many of these attempts to produce a Great American Novel is that the world of work is never described. Work is a very important subject and is not something to be disdained or ignored, but I dont think successful novelists really know what it's like to have a job anymore. And the more successful they become the more they get away from everyday concerns. Yes you can sit in your office and think up snappy dialogue until the cows come home but if you want to describe America maybe it would be a good idea to experience America, listen to what people are saying, see what they're doing etc. And if you can't fake dialogue, next time you're out bring a tape recorder and leave it running in the diner and I think you'll be surprised by how people actually talk.
One final final point: if you're going to diss The Ramones you really need to have some water tight arguments otherwise you'll come off like someone who doesn't understand The Ramones and that ain't a good look.