When he appeared on the cover of Time magazine this August (the first novelist to be thus honoured in a decade), Jonathan Franzen was acclaimed as a “Great American Novelist” and as someone who, better than anyone else, gave Americans a sense of “the way we live now”. The occasion for this coronation was the release of Franzen’s long-awaited and massive new novel Freedom, his first in the nine years since his best-selling The Corrections.
But just as the title of Franzen’s new novel sounds wooden unless read ironically, so too his book deserves to be read a little more sceptically than it has been so far. Like many very fat novels, it does not really earn its length, sometimes singing along, at other times dragging badly, and often sacrificing integrity of character and narrative voice in its effort to paint a large-scale portrait of not just a family, but also the great issues of our time: 9/11, the war on Iraq, global warming, the impact of technology on human relations. It is notable, mainly, for the extent to which almost all of its main characters are “f****d up” in some way, and make others around them, including the few happy ones, miserable. If this is indeed a representative portrait of the way we live now, we are looking at a very dysfunctional, joyless world.
Freedom: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 582 pages, $28 (around Rs 1,240.
“F**k”, incidentally, is a favourite word of Franzen’s, and he deploys it not just as an expletive and as a verb denoting casual sex, but also as shorthand for making love, as when a woman remembers how “they laughed and cried and f****d with a joy whose gravity and innocence it fairly wrecks the autobiographer to think back on”. The English language has a very wide vocabulary, so perhaps the gravity and innocence of the act here required the use of a different verb to make it real. The reliance on “f**k” is emblematic of a certain coldness in the novel’s language, as if determined to reduce the entire palette of human dealings and emotions into something more monotone. The result is a book that is often not just depressing (which is fine), but depressingly written.
The story. Walter and Patty Berglund, when first seen in the late 1990s, are a happy, successful couple in the mid-western town of St Paul, with a beautiful house, two teenaged children, and many friends in the neighbourhood. But everything falls apart when the Berglund’s son, Joey, whom his mother loves insanely, rebels against the family and moves next door to live with his girlfriend and her mother. Patty’s equanimity breaks down, and she feels transported back into the world of her teens, when she received only contempt from her family. At that point she was rescued from her gloom by the attentions of Walter, a young man with many familial difficulties of his own who brightened up her life. Patty, Cinderella-like, decides to marry Walter because it is “her obvious best shot at defeating her sisters and her mother”. There is only one problem: Patty originally had begun to spend time with Walter because she was attracted to his best friend, the feckless, womanizing rock musician Richard Katz. After some years of absence from their lives, Katz has now returned and when Patty begins to find life too difficult for her, she turns to Katz.
Early bird: Time magazine said Franzen writes six or seven days a week, starting at 7am. Joe Kohen/AFP
All these events are described to us from a peculiar point of view, that of a retrospective journal entitled Mistakes Were Made written by Patty at the insistence of her therapist, and yet describing herself in the third person. Elsewhere, the narration shifts to more conventional third-person description as it tracks the activities of Walter, Katz and (in one of the novel’s best sections) the now adult Joey, trying to balance marriage with an affair while also attempting to make a quick buck off business operations in post-war Iraq.
Franzen has an excellent ear for dialogue, and the exchanges between his characters are often uncannily naturalistic. But this is a novel that, starting from the title, is so self-consciously important that the reader often feels like resisting this grandiosity, and the long sections of narration and plot devoted to the theory of the free market, to American imperialism, and forest degradation are enormously cynical and tiresome. This is an intermittently compelling and dramatic novel that is bogged down too much by its own weight.
IN SIX WORDS
Too fat for its own good
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
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