Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

12 November 2010
Opening chapter
I’m not going to stop every 20-odd pages, but Franzen goes somewhere else after this chapter and, well, I just wanted to say how impressed I am. I re-read Middlemarch a few months ago, and the narrator of Freedom, affecting a fair-minded neutrality whilst his characters comment on one another’s failings, is straight out of that novel. I feel I’m in the hands of someone who knows what he’s doing,

I won’t go on about Middlemarch, but by satirising the mores of a particular time in a small place Franzen is able to have a look at a bigger picture. Mostly, we’re in the last decade of the 20th Century and the Berglunds are East Coast liberals in a Midwest city. Franzen makes their certainties seem quaint, as typified by their green-leaning views which don’t prevent them from running a gas-guzzling Volvo. As the neighbours watch – and, inevitably, make endless comments about – the meltdown within the family, we can sympathise with these outsiders’ views whilst sympathising with the family as well. Sort of.

Who are the Berglunds? Nice dad who works too hard, nice mum who doesn’t work, but sees herself as the social lubricant in the neighbourhood they are all busy gentrifying… and uber-competent kids who have time to grow into young adulthood during this first chapter. Both these new adults have the potential to be the main characters of this novel. Jessica is conventionally academic; Joey seems able, not conventionally at all, to see through the usual nonsense of growing up. Well before the age of 14 he’s lost his virginity and started his first small business. By 16 he’s moved in with the next-door neighbours, who are almost caricatures of everything the Berglunds – and, presumably, Franzen’s readers – hate about Middle America: she’s no better than she should be; he – a recent acquisition – has built a hideous games-room where the lovely trees used to stand; and the daughter, a kind of cipher, has always been happy to let Joey shag her – if the stories are to be believed, and of course Franzen rarely confirms or denies any stories – whenever he wants.

Something is rotten at the heart of the Berglunds. It’s easy for the neighbours to blame the parents for Joey’s behaviour, but that’s not what I mean. Basically, by the time her children are in their mid-teens Patty Berglund seems to have run out of reasons for existence. Franzen allows us to wonder about something unhealthy in her love for her son – she’s beside herself with anger when he leaves, which could easily be construed as jealousy – and soon she’s spending far too much time alone in the lakeside house they’ve just inherited from her mother-in-law…. As for Walter, well, the neighbours have a field day discussing his inadequacies as a father and husband. Nice just doesn’t cut it. By the end of the chapter, not long after the ‘national tragedy’ of 9/11 (itself following the election, in the Berglunds’ eyes, of the wrong man as President), they sell up the house they’ve spent years of their lives renovating and nobody really misses them.

And in the first paragraph of the novel we’ve heard something mysterious about Walter. Teasingly, it’s at this early point that we’re told that after their move away – to Washington – he’s somehow compromised, somehow not as squeaky-clean as he always liked to make out. Their old neighbours aren’t as surprised as you might expect. The reader, well, we don’t know what to think. The blow to his reputation comes in a newspaper story, so Franzen has made sure the information about this, like so much else, is as compromised as he can make it. And how likely is it that all will become clear in the next chapter? Or ever? A glance at the first few lines tells us it’s the first part of the ‘autobiography’, but written in the third person, of Patty Berglund. Not massively clear, obviously.

I did a Google search to see if anybody’s been picking up on the similarities with Middlemarch: individual, family, local opinion, political context…. Maybe my search wasn’t clear enough, but I didn’t find anyone who has. Or maybe people pick up on the similarities to soap opera. Or to Revolutionary Road (novel or film) – or Mrs Kravitz in those early series of Bewitched in the 1960s, always twitching the curtain and making comments to her long-suffering husband. Whatever, no more Google searches until I’ve finished.

15 November
Chapters 1-2 of Mistakes Were Made…
…or ‘Autobiography of Patty Berglund by Patty Berglund (Composed at Her Therapist’s Suggestion)’. This is such a clever conceit I had to stop and wonder at it for a while before I’d reached the end of the first paragraph. Franzen can have it at least two ways: we get what usually reads like a conventional third-person narrative based, not unconventionally, on one point of view. But we also know it’s the subjective, partial account of a character whose adult self we’ve already witnessed in its problematic incompleteness. This is the first mention of an actual therapist, and the long-term relationship with this person suggested by the autobiography idea feels just right: we’re not a bit surprised.

Nor, later, are the narrative conventions a surprise. The first-person singular pronoun is apparently a no-no, so Patty’s adult self becomes ‘the autobiographer’. And so Franzen can have us believe we’re witnessing the working out of decades-old insecurities and resentments by a woman who wants to understand herself better. Isn’t that what therapy’s supposed to be about? I love the idea whilst never forgetting that this remains a literary conceit. (This being a Jonathan Franzen novel, maybe we’re not supposed to forget.) We’ve read enough novels focused on the unreliability of memory to know that Patty’s recollections 20 or 30 years after the fact are impossibly clear: as far as I can tell, there is no difference at all in the amount of detail we get from what a conventional third-person narrator would provide.

But we get over it. Or I did, anyway, because there are enough pleasures in that extra level of understanding we get from remembering that it’s Patty telling it. This isn’t about the way people patch together memories from shattered fragments, it’s about one person’s view of growing up in a family she thinks has never cared about her, then moving on to the unsatisfactory early years of supposed adulthood. (Two chapters, taking up 90-odd pages, cover just these times: from early childhood to the end of Year 2 at the two-bit university she decides to go to in a pointless gesture of defiance.)

‘The autobiographer’ is knowing enough about herself to understand that her view is partial. But that doesn’t stop decades of seething resentments from rising up. In childhood it’s her belief that her parents only really care about the siblings who achieve academically or musically (or, inevitably, both). Worse, they patronise her: all these years later she still resents the way her father would make fun of her, and the way that every Christmas would give the whole family a chance to remind her that she believed in Santa Claus for years beyond the usual onset of cynicism. Just too innocent for her own good, that’s our Patty’s judgment of herself. She later cites the Santa Claus thing as a precursor to the way she will resolutely not listen to unwelcome evidence in adult life: she believes the leukaemia story she gets from her friend Eliza, a monster in Patsy’s narrative (and possibly in reality), despite all the ‘red flags’. ‘The autobiographer’ is starting to realise it’s not a good quality to have, but this has obviously taken some effort.

The first chapter is designed to explain the depth of her resentment over her parents’ lack of care. Those little childhood scars are dealt with in a few pages; what takes two thirds of the chapter is her highly detailed reporting of the rape she alleges at the age of 17 and her parents’ response. The third-person autobiography idea comes into its own: the reader never knows how certain to be of Patty’s version, however convincing it sounds (which it does); and the parents’ reasons for not going to law are set out as clearly as if by a ‘neutral’ omniscient author. As her lawyer father portrays it, the misery of a late 1970s rape case, with the lawyers of the rich boy’s parents doing their best to mash her reputation to a pulp, would definitely make a prosecution ill-advised. As readers we can see that her father might well be right. But we can also see exactly why a 17-year-old would see it as a betrayal.

To reinforce this sense, Franzen has found a neat way for her parents to find it hard to take the interest in Patty that she thinks she deserves: they aren’t sporty, and all her achievements (which the adult Patty lists with almost pathetic precision) are in the sports arena. They never go to her matches – a fact confirmed in Patty’s narrative by her coach when Patty’s mother claims she’s been more than once – so they never know how good she is. All she ever hears from them is how well the academic/creative sisters are doing. We feel the seething resentment, believe her assessment of her parents’ lack of interest in her sporting activities – whilst being able to see why such parents might find it hard to take seriously the obsessions of this emotionally unser-developed girl.

How does Franzen somehow manage to be fair-minded in this way? Dunno. He doesn’t make a particular point of how precisely her parents’ lack of interest is mirrored by her lack of interest in her mother’s political rise. All Patty sees – even the adult Patty – is a mother who’s always too busy. Patty, at whatever age, is right – but what we’re witnessing is how childish resentment can lead to a rift which, as we know from the novel’s opening chapter, has continued right into adulthood.

All these themes carry on in ‘Best Friends’, the chapter dealing with Patty’s first two years at a university in Minnesota. From the start the adult Patty tells us how her time there was like sleepwalking – that may not be her actual word – from her petulant reasons for applying to go there instead of somewhere better to the whole three-year existence. I wondered as I read the chapter whether Franzen has read The Myth of Maturity by Terri Apter, a psychologist specialising in college-age young adults whose thesis is that people of this age are far closer emotionally to adolescence than to adulthood. All the insecurities are there, and so is the continued seeking out of parental approval – which of course, in Patty’s case, she continues not to get.

The threads we get are to do with Patty’s full and wholehearted integration into the cult of jockdom. It’s the adult Patty who calls it a cult – she’s obviously more of a Patty Hearst than the Patti Smith she’s encouraged to admire – describes near the end of the chapter the game during which she loses her religion…. And there are the best descriptions I’ve ever read in fiction of the mindset of the athlete. We get the obsessive training schedules, the way being in the ‘zone’ necessarily pushes aside thoughts of anything else, the rivalries which, however real they are, don’t harm the effectiveness of the support within the team. Franzen isn’t writing for sports players – I’d guess that amongst the readership of art-house fiction there’s a lower ratio of such people than in the general population – so he does everything in his power to take us inside a mindset that must be alien to many. It works for me: not long into the chapter, Franzen has me where he wants me – understanding why this obsessive, limited girl would be so hurt by parents who not only don’t get it, but don’t want to get it. By parents who, in this respect at least, sound a bit like me. (Thank god I didn’t have sporty kids.)

By the end of the chapter, Patty is recovering from the injury that we’ve already been told spells the end of her sporting career. And a whole lot of other stuff has been going on in Patty’s damaged, stunted emotional life. First we get to know about Eliza, the monstrously manipulative girl-woman the adult Patty calls a kind of stalker. (‘Best Friends’ is a title so heavy with irony it would break a bone if it fell on your foot.) Next there are the two blokes who appear to typify the eternal truth that given the choice of sexy monster or mousy saint, women will go for the monster every time. The monster is Richard Katz, punk musician, Eliza’s enthusiastic lover and room-mate of – wait for it – Walter the mouse.

This foursome, like the tedious lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are in a mess. Walter really fancies Patty, both women really fancy Katz, Katz doesn’t seem bothered about anybody – and nobody fancies Walter. Patty takes us through it all, from Patty’s early betrayal by some other bloke – who she only much later realises was sharing his bed and his drug habit with Eliza – to her ever more squalid attempts to use her friendship with Walter to catch a glimpse (or more than a glimpse) of Katz. It’s all horrible and, bearing in mind that these people are aged about 20, all too believable. I believed it, anyway…

…except for Walter the saint. It’s a mantra when presented with first-person narratives, in whatever form, that what we’re reading is probably unreliable. So Franzen has the truth about his selflessness come to us from an unexpected – but, we must assume, totally reliable – source. Katz, now always referred to as Richard, can see what Patty is doing, but is completely loyal to Walter. (Under the punk exterior he’s a nice boy really, like most people.) He takes Patty through the sacrifices Walter has to go through, doing practically a full-time job keeping his parents’ business alive in some two-bit town somewhere – near enough for him to take the bus home every weekend – working on his law degree and… making time to see Patty. Shit, this guy doesn’t even complain when Patty lets him spend his precious time stranded with the dorm’s famous bore while she watches tv.

But before the series of episodes that bring everything to the inevitable unsatisfactory conclusion there’s the Eliza thread to finish off. As with Walter’s saintliness,we don’t have to take Patty’s word for Eliza’s near-psychopathic selfishness and all-round weirdness. She really does keep a secret scrapbook of Patty’s sporting achievements, really does steal her first boyfriend – insisting, no doubt truthfully, that Patty was never his only sexual partner – and she really does, in the end, pretend to have leukaemia. It’s a step too far, and Patty phones the parents when, after she finds out, Eliza threatens suicide. Richard has already seen through this monster, but Patty is too immature to understand that he’s saying these things for her own good. Now, as Eliza’s parents ask her questions, it becomes clear how much of a pattern all this is with her.

Meanwhile we carry on getting the perfect picture of just how limited and selfish Patty is. She strings Walter along – a fact that Richard confronts her with – and knows nothing about his appalling life because he’s never told her and she’s never asked. She’s presented with a choice at the end of two years: spend the summer in Richard’s old room – sharing, no strings attached, the apartment with Walter – or driving home to New York with Richard, who is dropping out and intends to live there from now on. It’s a no-brainer. But the drive with Richard is a complete failure – even the 21-year-old Patty can begin to realise how much of a pain he finds her – and, after more than one dark night of the soul alone in a seedy squat on the way… what to do?

Rush to her mother’s big political bash, celebrating her elevation to the highest echelons? She’s missed the Saturday event, but there’s still Sunday’s if she wants to make the effort. Gulp. She decides to ‘go home’ – which, reader, turns out to be Hibbing, the two-bit town where Walter is, with his now dying father, put-upon mother and his no-good brothers. At the bus station in the small hours she discovers for the first time, in the chapter’s final words, that Walter kisses – wait for it – ‘very nicely’. Ho ho.

I haven’t even started on Franzen’s take of feminism, and his enthusiasm for writing from women’s points of view. But I’ve written far too much already, and there’ll be chance enough.

18 November
Chapter 3 of the Autobiography…
…which is the last, for now. Even before this chapter I was thinking about how Franzen rounds up the usual suspects – ditsy woman and two contrasting men – and does the slow-motion car crash thing with them. Sorry, too many clichés which, surprisingly, isn’t the feeling I get from any of the autobiography chapters. I don’t know how he makes the sad old story somehow matter, but he does. And by the end of it I was genuinely saddened by the tragic spin Patty is able to put on it. In her version – and, despite the impossible literariness of the writing it’s definitely her version – what we’d assumed about Richard is wrong: he rejected her all those years ago not because she’s too boring but because he can’t take her away from his friend. When they finally get a chance to put it right they can’t, for almost the same reason. (There are other reasons, which I’ll come back to.)

In this chapter Franzen has Patty fill in some of the gaps he deliberately left in the novel’s opening chapter (including, I think, any mention of Richard). Then, it was nearly all outsiders’ points of view, nudged along by an uber-neutral narrator. Now, it’s Patty’s version. She’s easy on herself at the same time that she beats herself up about it all: ‘Mistakes were made’ is not the same as ‘I made mistakes’, even though she spends dozens of pages describing the mistakes and exactly whose fault they are. She describes how unattractive her self-pity is – in endless scenes involving Joey, Jessica and, mainly, Richard – with her eyes wide open. It doesn’t mean she’s doing it to stop us feeing sorry for her, which is a neat trick. It’s clear by the end that in her own eyes she’s a tragic heroine, however undeserving she says she is, from one of the classic novels she’s finally started to read. (Franzen has has had her reading War and Peace. You can believe that if you want to.)

Anyway. Richard, who only started coming to life in the road trip episode, becomes a central character in this chapter. It had been easy to see him as a kind of Russell Brand, all attitude and hair… but, slowly, he evolves into the best friend either of the Berglunds ever had. Believable? I didn’t say that. He sticks with his punk band over the years, releases records, runs a business building decks for people who don’t mind hanging around waiting while the cool guy gets round to turning up. That’s believable enough, but by the time they are all in their 40s he’s kindly, rather well-read, plays chess when Walter suggests it.

All this is so much froth. His USP is sex, and Patty has never found Walter as sexually interesting in reality as she has Richard in 20 years of fantasising. Marital sex is a cliché of bored dutifulness for her – her description of it is brutal – but when Richard starts to be around again (never mind why)… well. The episode when it finally happens takes page after page. Patty and Richard are at the lakeside house – he’s doing some work for them – and, despite his best efforts, she has her way with him. ‘The autobiographer’ swears she believes her own version of it: that she sleepwalks into his bed. No comment – any more than there’s any need to comment on her version of his tragic love for her that they can never share. (Sob.) He comes out very well. She accepts the distinction when he says there’s no-one else, as opposed to there isn’t anybody else. We know what he’s like – he’s even said out loud that all he seems to want is put his penis into as many vaginas as possible – and, along with Patty, both Franzen and the reader kind of accept that. For now: who knows what we’ll find out next?

Running alongside this thread is Patty’s version of life as the home-maker. Mistakes were made…. Does any more need to be said? Yes, she did give Joey far more attention than his sister, yes she did go sort of mad when he went over to the neighbours, yes she did slash the interloper’s tyres. (Did I mention that episode in the opening chapter? I’m mentioning it now.) She develops a drinking habit that she only attempts to control when Richard remarks on it on an overnight visit with his sometime girlfriend and singer in the band. And she makes it as hard as she can for Walter to keep on loving her. In her narrative she married the wrong person, and she does her best as a housewife almost as a kind of penance. At one point, late in the chapter, she chastises herself about how she has nothing to complain about: all she’s ever been given is the freedom of choice to do whatever she wants, and what has she done? Made herself wretched. (And there goes that two-edged thing again. What’s to pity about poor little me? Lots, obviously.)

Freedom doesn’t make you happy. What else about freedom? The chapter title is ‘Free markets foster competition’, as though her continuous vacillation between Walter and Richard is a form of bastardised capitalism. And, to stretch the point, she’s free – as in, has acres of free time – to mull over the mistakes she’s made, when it’s too late to do anything about it. Example: she has an idea about spending some quality time with her daughter, now at college; but you can’t start doing that when you’ve failed to do it for 19 years….

Failure and success, Franzen favourites. At the end of the chapter Patty is sure that Richard is staying away from them because it’s too dangerous – and too painful – for him to spend any time near her. She’s sure she’s heard him tell her she’s the only one for him (and she might be right), sure that the wistful songs he’s now writing are addressed to her, not to the sometime girlfriend who’s topped herself. But it’s just as likely that Richard’s new-found success with an album of those same songs is what gets in the way. Walter, according to Patty, has always been the older brother, has always been able to patronise Richard with his marital and all-round right-on intellectual successes. Not any more. If we wondered why they up sticks so fast at the end of the first chapter, it’s because Walter needs some more success in his life. He’s going to throw in his lot with – wait for it – politicians. We know from page 1 – if we can believe anything in this book, whoever’s telling it – that it’ll end in tears. We know from the last sentence of the autobiography chapters that Patty has ‘made yet another mistake.’ Bet you didn’t see that one coming.

21 November
First two chapters of 2004

We get a chapter based on a segment of Richard’s life – he’s always Katz now – and a longer one based on Joey and his first term at university. It’s conventional third-person, single point of view stuff, and summaries (like a summary of the Patty’s autobiography chapters) wouldn’t take you anywhere unexpected. Katz has had his success, has – in a long parenthesis in his chapter’s opening paragraph of a single 300-odd-word sentence – dissipated all of it in a couple of years and is back building decks. He’s trying celibacy for a few weeks, is about to fail – and gets a call from Walter. We know Walter’s eventually heading for a fall, is mixed up with a donor to his green project who is bad news (tell you later), and wants his old friend to lend some much needed coolness to the project, bring in the young (and not so young) who might otherwise steer clear. Katz is interested because – guess – Walter has a beautiful young assistant.

Joey’s chapter mixes personal and political in ways that seem crude. His first week or so of university is fine, and Joey is expecting the next few years to be just like his first 18. But, in a way that Franzen does his best to make plausible, 9/11 somehow throws him and he can’t recover the equilibrium he’s always taken for granted. The expected ‘hook-ups’ with women students don’t happen because, well, he’s not really bothered. Or something. In the months before leaving he’s been getting Connie, the girl next door, used to the idea of him no longer being there – but after not many weeks he’s called her up to come and spend the weekend with him. He isn’t nearly as in control of this as he thought, is constantly wrong-footed by the deep-rooted affection he has for her. If it ain’t love – and Franzen isn’t saying, obviously – I don’t know what it is. (There’s another babe, his room-mate’s sister, adding the necessary complications – to say nothing of their massively influential neocon father, Joey’s newly-discovered Jewish heritage and,,, other stuff.)

It’s as though Franzen has set himself the task of ticking absolutely all the boxes. After I’d finished these chapters I told someone that it’s wonderfully written but not a patch on The Corrections. Is it too thinly spread? Isn’t there a danger, whilst giving the reader a week or two of one character’s life, a month or two of another’s – and simultaneously dealing with every last detail on a liberal readership’s current affairs radar – that, basically, people might lose interest?

[Later] I once wrote this about a different author: ‘Sometimes I wonder whether he really only writes short stories, and fills them out with almost Nicholson Baker-like minutiae… a determination to unpick every thread of thought.’ Well, that’s how I feel about these middle chapters. They’re not single short stories, but they are series of intensely felt (and intensely described) episodes, and the accretion of detail makes them feel almost as rich as lived experience. Almost. So it seems unfair to try to reduce thousands of lovingly organised words to mere summaries. We get Joey’s ambiguous feelings about Connie and Jenna, the friend’s sister, in all their complicated messiness. That’s the point: by the end of his chapter he seems to have thrown his lot in with Connie – but, this being a novel, exactly at the moment when he appears to have done that he gets an email from Jenna. The chapter ends with him smoking a joint. And ‘another… and another, and another.’ (Franzen loves repetition; it often mirrors the way any character, lost in some downward spiral of doubt, will keep going over the same ground.)

How believable is it? Good question, because it’s in these chapters where Franzen seems to come clean and let us know this isn’t just a domestic novel, it’s a state of the nation novel. There are plenty of ordinary people in it, but they either become extraordinary – with all the issues raised by the idea of success that I’ve already talked about – or they meet people who already are. Richard we know about (I’m not going to call him Katz any more). Walter, meanwhile, is heading up a successful conservation agency, funding projects by schmoozing big business. Successfully. But Franzen has spent pages having him outline for Richard the thin ice he’s having to tread on: his coal-mining tycoon will fund the conservation of hundreds of square miles, so long as he can do some MTR – mountain-top removal – one of the great bogeys of the green lobby.

For chapters, whenever Walter has made appearances in other people’s stories, his green credentials are 24 carat: if you can think of an environmental issue of the last two decades, we’ve probably heard Walter saying something right-on about it. There’s nothing wrong with MTR if it’s done properly, he says, the regeneration afterwards can lead to a more suitable habitat for this or that endangered species than has existed for decades…. But Richard is wary and, as I think I mentioned, we haven’t forgotten the novel’s opening paragraphs: something foul-smelling is going to be sticking to Walter before too long. Richard is going to ‘think about it’ – one of the novel’s most often repeated refrains whenever anybody is too polite or too cowardly to say an outright no – and he wouldn’t even have said that if it hadn’t been for Lalitha, the assistant. Men, eh?

How about Joey? Franzen goes into frankly tedious detail relating to the state of this 18-year-old’s penis throughout the autumn of 2001. Masturbation, phone-sex fantasies with Connie, ‘boners’ he gets just by being in the same room – or not – as Jenna…. The point being that he isn’t in control. The only way he differs from the young Richard is the way he lets thinking get in the way of his pursuit of women. He doesn’t actually have sex with anybody else.

In his own mind, his relationship with Connie is at an end, but telephone calls (with her mother, and with Connie herself) reveal this to be a kind of immature fantasy on his part: he’s much more involved than he ever realised. Before this he thought it would be feasible to view relationships materialistically – but after the phone calls he begins to envisage the potentially astronomic ‘interest repayments’ on what he got from Connie in the years before he left for university. He isn’t thinking materialistically at Christmas, apartment-sitting for his mother’s embarrassingly unsuccessful ‘creative’ sister. He isn’t thinking, full stop: his fateful call to Connie is entirely dictated by the needs of his friend in his boxer shorts.

But before we reach this point Franzen has brought about one of those convenient encounters with a bigger world. Joey’s Jewish room-mate is the son of a man who is used to being listened to on national television, who refers abstractly to the importance of ‘the philosopher’ – he means himself – at times of national crisis. At the Thanksgiving dinner Joey gets himself invited to, Joey meets this man – who fathered his children late in middle-age and is now wizened and skull-like except for his super-white teeth, like an orthodontically enhanced memento mori. He lectures his friends and family – and Joey is able to engage with him in a kind of Socratic debate. He can see the flaws in the man’s ultra-hawkish argument (frankly, it’s a series of meaningless rhetorical flourishes in which, inevitably, ‘freedom’ is a key-word) and yet… he is seduced anyway. The guiding force in Joey’s life, in addition to the one we know about, is his driving ambition – and he sees that this man can take him places.

Other stuff. Too much to outline, really, except for the way other family members make guest appearances. Patty, in particular, is not coping in any way with life in Washington in Richard’s chapter. In Joey’s, set before the Berglunds’ move, we get his version of her neediness in her relationship with him. He can hardly bear to listen to her – did I mention how self-centred he is? – will do anything to stay away from both her and his father. (Not that Connie’s mother is any better: he is finding her expectations of him with regard to to her daughter to be highly inconvenient, until his dick – or is it lurve? – tells him otherwise.)

Demands, like… Politics. Making money. Families, especially mothers. And that little chap who is always waiting for the next bit of action. What is it with some American writers – ok, this American writer – and the imperatives of the male member?

The Nice Man’s Anger
During these middle chapters Franzen is holding up a lamp to the USA’s proud sense of its own moral strength. In the domestic world, he’s been happy to show us how the respect of friends and family has little to do with morality – the novel’s alpha males say and do what they want because they can – to say nothing of what attracts people to one another. Up to now, Franzen has allowed the whole sexual attraction thing to be boringly predictable, but now, half-way through Walter’s chapter (I’ve stopped for a breather), nothing seems certain any more. We’ve been getting Walter’s deeply pessimistic view of the way the USA is getting absolutely everything wrong, and we’ve been getting the crisis of conscience with regard to his feelings for Lalitha. And we know, on both counts, that in Franzen-land, if we get what we want (or what we think we want) that’s when the regrets start.

At the moment when I’ve stopped reading, everything is pointing – although, for a change, Franzen doesn’t make it clear whether that means absolutely everything in Walter’s case – to him finally getting off with Lalitha. Is it just a re-run of the slow, inevitable coming together of Patty and Richard at the lakeside house? And what about the other slow-motion car-crash, involving what the novel’s first paragraph told us all about before we understood any of it? Walter the golden boy – always so holier-than-thou – finally getting it wrong on the domestic front and the political front at exactly the same time, and having to pay for it? Time to finish the chapter.

[Later] Finished the chapter, and it’s all looking bad for Walter. The news has been leaked about what will happen to the West Virginia woodlands and, of course, nothing he can say is going to alter the fact that things there are going to get a lot worse before they get better. The chapter ends with protesters blocking the mining companies’ heavy vehicles and leaving Walter nothing to do but let Lalitha drag him away seething. No, I tell a lie. The chapter ends, like the previous one, with a communication, out of the blue, from somebody unexpected. This time it’s – you’re not going to believe this – Joey, and he’s got something highly surprising to tell the father from whom he’s been practically estranged for years. That’s two cliff-hangers in a row: we still don’t know the outcome of that email from Jenna at the end of the last chapter – which, in the bizarre back-flip performed by the chronology, all took place over two years previously.

(I must check in a properly printed version that the chapter isn’t misplaced in my version, from the notorious first British print-run. I don’t actually believe it, but it the kink in the time-line seems completely pointless to me.)

Anyway. This is the chapter during which I’ve finally decided I don’t really like what Franzen is doing. It’s so bloody relentless. Walter is tortured by his loyalty to Patty and his all-round niceness: it is simply not possible for him to do what Lalitha wants and take her to bed. Actually, in a scene which Franzen could have made comic – and might have done if this had been The Corrections – he does take her to bed, because she’s drunk and feigning a kind of swoon just to get him there. But he leaves her to sleep it off. However. Near the end of the chapter he lets her know that, after all, he’s ready. It’s the morning after, and it isn’t the right time – in this novel, three or four things often reach a head at the same time, and this is the morning of the demolition of some of the West Virginia settlements – and they get swept up by events.

So, what’s coming together in this chapter? In Walter’s terms, everything bad that possibly could. He’s having a crisis of confidence about the project – two chapters ago he and Lalitha were telling Richard how prone their pet tycoon is to doing deals behind their backs – and he wonders whether the protesters are right after all. We get a Walter’s-eye-view of a steak-house menu, in which he can only see the massive ecological effects of the process of bringing beef or pork to the American table. When he is becoming stressed almost to the point of meltdown, a side of him we didn’t know about before this chapter, he has a habit of ticking off the environmental bad news: in the last month, week, day – by the end of the chapter he’s down to fractions of an hour – this is how much rainforest has disappeared, this is how many million people have been added to our already overpopulated planet…. (Gary in The Corrections is also fond of numbers, also in ways that don’t help him at all.)

Running parallel is the crisis of his feelings towards Lalitha. Franzen lets us know just how awful his marriage to Patty has become with a three- or four-page flashback to the early days in Washington, and with present-day phone calls in which she wretchedly assumes that he must, surely, have done it with Lalitha by now…? His misery in this is as abject as his misery about the project, the fate of the planet, his inability to deal with ordinary people without a kind of feral (actually, inherited) fury. Lalitha keeps having to rescue him. Then he gets the news that the New York Times has leaked what is going on in the woods – hence the presence of the protesters – and contemplates bringing forward the press conference. We, and a nagging inner voice inside Walter, know he’s already too late. This is when Joey calls. ‘Dad, um… I’m in some sort of trouble.’

Relentless. I’m going to take a few days off.

[Pause. In a book diary I’m writing about David Lodge’s Deaf Sentence, I wrote the following, comparing it with Freedom:
The differences in the ways these two authors describe family life strikes me as entirely representative of one English strand of fiction and one American. Lodge gives us petty irritations, the background noise of the little tensions that make life vaguely, well, tiresome. With Franzen it’s all at such a pitch of intensity that any changes in family dynamics are nothing short of tectonic shifts. I know which version I recognise – but I would, wouldn’t I?

28 November
Enough Already…
… which has at least two meanings. Three. In this chapter, a mere 30-odd pages long, we’re back with Richard. Or Katz. (Richard it is, then.) He’s decided to go to Washington to see, well, who exactly? Walter and Lalitha, or Patty? He spends most time with the first two, and Jessica, discussing the ways they might make Walter’s zero-population idea into a viable lobby-group. (This was what they were all talking about, three chapters ago.) Richard’s idea for a name, Enough Already, is rejected, and he becomes as bored as this reader by all the right-on talk. He doses himself up on nicotine and caffeine just to get through the day, and comes crashing down during a dark mid-evening of the soul. The concert for young 21-year-olds they’ve gone to in order to schmooze the lead singer depresses him on about three different levels, not least of which is his sense of simply being too old for this kind of thing.

The chapter has already contained intimations of mortality even before Richard gets to Washington – death is mentioned at least twice – and the idea isn’t going away. And, perhaps even more disturbing to Mr Cool, is a phenomenon that Franzen’s middle-aged readers will recognise: the behaviour of the younger generation, so enclosed in their own bubbles of self-absorption that they don’t even know how rude they are. In Richard’s case this has already resulted in a case of bus rage – to match Walter’s perpetual road rage whenever he drives – as a young woman discards her wet ice-cream container on his feet.

It’s no surprise to us that when he arrives in Washington he has no interest in Jessica. Even in his previous chapter, her generation was losing almost all its allure for him. It’s Patty he’s come for, and she’s around in the mansion shared by all of them, including Lalitha. It’s a pity, then, that she seems to be playing so hard to get. To salvage something – and because he has always intended to make what might be the final decisive move on her – he goes to Patty’s room. Twice. The second time, she agrees to talk to him, and he realises she’s telling the truth when she describes how much of a fuck-up she’s been in the three years since their brief moment in the lakeside house. Franzen has been making coy references to Richard’s penis in this chapter – the prophet in his pants, the witness in his pants, that sort of thing – and it’s going to have to go home disappointed this time. All she’s given him to take him through the night is a copy of Mistakes Were Made….

By the next morning he’s decided that the main message of Patty’s autobiography is that she was right to choose Walter, and he leaves. On the way to the airport it briefly looks as though his story ends here as he contemplates jumping from a high bridge. But he goes home instead, spring-cleans his apartment and makes moves to get his life back together. End of chapter, we think… until Patty arrives. Richard’s parting gesture had been to leave Mistakes Were Made on Walter’s desk, and it looks as though Walter has understood it differently: he has never been the one to press Patty’s buttons, not like Richard does. The occupant of Richard’s pants – Franzen is ready to call it ‘his dick’ at last – is pleased. He tells us it’s the only part of him that is.

30 November
Bad News…
…in which we get the back story leading up to Joey’s telephone call at the end of Walter’s chapter a hundred pages ago. That’s what Franzen does in this book, back story. From the opening paragraph about Walter ‘making a mess of his professional life’, which has taken two-thirds of the novel to start to be explained, Franzen has got into the habit of swishing back a curtain to reveal some tasty morsel, then spending a very long chapter (or two) painstakingly explaining how it got there. I wish he’d stop.

But he doesn’t stop, and now we’ve had the growing pains of Joey Berglund, aged 20 and three-quarters. It’s horrible, because it’s about the difficult process of his coming to learn that he can’t be the monster he thinks he wants to be. The surprise, I suppose, is that it takes him so long to realise – except Franzen has already spent a massive slice of the novel demonstrating how nobody grows up until they’re a long way past 20. He thinks he’s the cool businessman, making a fast buck on the coat-tails of the invasion of Iraq. (And doesn’t Franzen just love to tick those liberal agenda boxes?) It’s a slightly less farcical, more deadly version of Chip’s business venture in The Corrections, with money magically appearing, this time government money.

Running parallel to Joey’s attempt to harden his business persona is his attempt to harden himself emotionally. Right from the first chapter, Franzen has been pointing out parallels between the domestic and the political – we’ve had chapters of it with Walter and Lalitha – and now, while Joey is having second thoughts about being a government arms dealer, he’s also realising he simply can’t follow his dick in the way we’ve seen Richard doing since long before he was Joey’s age. (Somewhere, beneath the venomous rows they’ve been having for years, he and Walter are cast from the same mould.) He can’t get Connie out of his mind, and she’s the only one who matters to him.

Does this all sound terribly obvious? That’s how it feels because, basically, this was clear all those chapters ago. Joey likes the idea of, say, getting Jenna to bed… but when he has the chance on an unexpected holiday in Argentina – don’t ask – he really isn’t interested. He thinks he is, but he isn’t – and Franzen proves it with a clunky comic set piece scene in which Joey turns out to be far more keen to salvage from his own shit in the toilet-bowl the wedding ring he accidentally swallowed than he is to keep Jenna happy. I didn’t mention it before, but you can guess who it is he’s married to.

The excruciating telephone call at the end of Walter’s chapter comes about as a result of what Joey thought he’d got rid of: his conscience. The business deal involves tons of worthless spare parts for clapped-out army vehicles, and he’s feeling bad about it long before the news item about soldiers on patrol breaking down and being left as sitting targets for any passing insurgents. He thinks that by making the call he’s lost the argument, he’s ‘beaten’. But what does he know? We know, don’t we, that he’s the prodigal son returning to the place – and the belief systems, and the certainties – that he should never have left.

Is that enough about this chapter? I ought to mention some of the politics, because Joey has decided to throw in his lot with the Republicans: they seem, in his frankly rather naïve eyes, less elitist than the Democrats, less prone to sneering. I suppose Franzen was writing this chapter around the time when the phenomenon of Sarah Palin was being unleashed on an unsuspecting world, and he has Joey meeting a woman on holiday who is interested in the idea that any taxes ever raised have been illegal, and that the government owes the taxpayer three trillion dollars. Even Joey, gung-ho until not long before this, is unimpressed, but otherwise Franzen allows her thesis to satirise itself: you couldn’t make it up. Or, rather, sometimes you don’t need to.

Otherwise this is the younger generation’s chapter. Franzen has decided to turn the beautiful Jenna into a fully-fledged monster. She’s like a more rounded version of the self-absorbed young people Richard found himself arguing with on the bus, and I was beginning to wonder whether Franzen was giving up on young people altogether. But there’s also her brother Jonathan. Somehow it doesn’t seem accidental for him to share Franzen’s forename: he’s evolved into the voice – or text message, or email – of common sense, pointing out just how appalling some of Joey’s behaviour has become. And Connie is always there, utterly dependent on Joey and yet, in his eyes, an almost perfectly self-contained adult now. After a couple of days with Jenna he realises his new wife is the only one who could possibly be at his side for the next stage in his life.

So, the slow dawning of understanding on Joey’s part after his ill-judged attempts to set his own moral agenda. Whatever will he learn next, now that he’s got his father on the line – the only person, he’s finally come to realise, whose opinion counts for anything at all?

3 December
The Fiend of Washington
The tired irony of that chapter-title is based on our understanding that Walter is a lot of stupid things, but a fiend isn’t one of them – and on the fact that presentation is all in the United States in the 21st Century. The Times story is accurate but – and ain’t it always the way? – it doesn’t tell the whole story. No surprises there, then. The word ‘evil’ is used in the chapter, but it’s Walter using it and it’s Richard he’s describing. But if there’s one thing we’re learning about Franzen-land, it’s that there are no moral absolutes: we’ve heard Richard’s side of the story – a phrase that keeps coming up in this chapter, as though to remind us – and whatever it is that drives him is no more intrinsically evil than what drives Walter. We are what we are.

Just in case that all sounds a bit too relativistic, well, earlier on I was describing Franzen’s habit of giving us back-stories. To give us a bit more of a take on Walter, Franzen winds his story back a whole century, to leave us with the idea that it isn’t the well-adjusted ones who became immigrants from Europe all those years ago. There are some tricky little ingredients in his gene-pool – ah, so that’s why he’s so prone to pointless rage – as, well, there are in everybody’s.

And the back-story isn’t the only Freedom-style aspect of this chapter. It ends – sorry to jump the gun – with the phone-call out of nowhere that is going to change the life of the recipient in some as yet unknown way. It has the filling in of details: we might feel, with Patty’s arrival at Richard’s two chapters ago, that we know all we need to about the state of things between her and Walter. Franzen doesn’t think so, and gives us a blow-by-blow account of their final row covering – hang on a minute while I count – six solid pages. It’s as though he wants us not to take his word for the things that happen; he has to persuade us, to show us, exactly how things reach the dreadful state they are in.

Half a novel ago I mentioned a different author and his ‘determination to unpick every thread of thought.’ That author is Ian McEwan, and he also does that persuasion thing. The plots of Atonement and On Chesil Beach hinge on a lot of what ifs, and McEwan spends pages on persuading us that in this decade, among this class, such an outcome is feasible. Franzen does an almost identical thing in Freedom, all the time. And the engine of all his male characters’ motivations that he spends most time persuading us about is sex. In this world, absolutely everybody’s fortunes live and die according to decisions made at such a primordial level it’s almost ironic that Franzen spends so many pages rationalising it. (I’ll come back to the sex later.)

The event that illustrates Franzen’s persuasion technique most graphically is the death of Lalitha. She doesn’t die because it’s convenient for the plot or because Franzen is a sadistic bastard. She dies for, well, any one of a variety of reasons in addition to the careless driving habits Franzen established as a part of her character a hundred pages ago. He lists five possibilities – they’re on page 500 if you what to count them – and I wondered why he needs to play this particular game. Is it a game, in which he’s daring the reader to disbelieve the logic of what he is presenting? Or is it a failure of nerve, which is always my suspicion about McEwan and, increasingly in this novel, about Franzen? Dunno.

So, what happens? Sex, obviously – and, also obviously, pages of agonising. Lalitha is canny enough to realise that Walter’s anger about Richard can only be fully explained by the fact that he still loves Patty. It’s Joey and Connie all over again – except that Lalitha is a far more worthy object of desire than the appalling Jenna. That’s one thread – but another also depends on Walter’s anger – you know, the aspect of him we hear nothing about for the first 300 or so pages of the novel – when it gets the better of him at the big press conference. Lalitha has to present his tirade against everybody he’s been working with for years as a drug-induced psychotic episode.

Sure. Really, Franzen needs him to come clean about his true beliefs in an attempt to win back some respect from his son. (That old one again. I’ll come back to that.) He needs Walter heading up a raggle-taggle army of disaffected youth, and his tirade, conveniently becoming a viral hit on the Internet, brings them flocking. It’s only a pity he’s fired Richard from the project, so all the events of the summer are small-scale and poorly attended. (Lalitha’s car crash happens as she drives around trying to prevent the last of these from descending into total anarchy. See, there is a logic, there is.)

Other family members. Joey has rediscovered his conscience and is helping to fund Walter’s zero-population growth project. Jessica is disgusted with Walter’s treatment of Patty because, as Franzen is keen to tell us, he didn’t think carefully enough about how to present his case to her early on. It’s another of those times when public and private aspects of life seem almost interchangeable…. And Patty? Franzen is leaving her alone, presumably because she can have her say – and update us on what happens following the fateful phone-call – in the fourth chapter of her autobiography, coming up next.

But before that…. The thing I’ve been thinking about most with regard to this novel is the way that Franzen seems happy for his USP to be the central role of family. That’s what The Corrections is about, and that’s what this novel is about. Fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives. Patty blames most of the mistakes in her life not on herself, as she pretends, but on her parents. And in order to convince us of Walter’s personality change, Franzen tells us a lot more about his father (and grandfather) than we want to know. Then there’s Joey and Walter, Jessica and both her parents, Connie and her mother, Joey’s rich friends and their neocon father – and all the permutations there are among these kids and other people’s parents…. It’s no wonder that nobody’s got a chance. (What’s Richard’s story? I’ve forgotten for the moment but I bet it’s problematic.)

And, at the centre of it all, is – nervous viewers turn away now – love. Only the characters who feel it and show it have any credibility in Franzen-land, and any relationship that lacks it is doomed. Is he an old romantic? Hmm. Ask me what I think when I know what happens in the unresolved triangular puzzle represented by, well, you know who.

5 December
The final two chapters
Well, yes he is. An old romantic, I mean. Patty thaws out six years of permafrost within Walter – helpfully accounted for in Franzen’s narrative by his coming from ‘a long line of refusers’, as if we hadn’t got the message by now – with the neat trick of forcing him to do the same for her, literally. One day she just comes and sits on his porch until she’s practically dead of exposure and, well, what’s an old Swede to do? Give us the happy ending he’s just been telling his daughter she’s not getting, that’s what. You can hear the (endangered) songbirds singing.

Two chapters: ‘Mistakes Were Made (Conclusion)’ and ‘Canterbridge Lakeside Estates’. Patty’s final chapter is, really, Franzen letting us know that we really can learn from our mistakes, that there really is hope for us all. More or less all the difficult family issues that made the earlier chapters of her autobiography so raw are fairly straightforwardly resolved, thanks to the judicious application both of the common sense she’s finally learned and of the money in the grandfather’s estate. It reads like the final chapter of a Victorian novel, inasmuch as we hear how the family’s willingness to tear itself apart over a will is replaced by a satisfactory future for this sibling, and this one, and this.

In her telling of it, it’s all down to Patty’s new-found equilibrium. She’s not competing any more – not least because, in almost any meaningful sense of the word, she’s won. Her mother is apologetic, her bohemian sister is bitter and twisted, the clever sister seems spaced-out, the brother – I’m not sure I even remembered him – has got locked into Orthodox Judaism, a large family and living a hand-to-mouth existence on the Jewish community’s charity. What was I saying about Franzen and success? Patty and Walter’s lives are almost brought to ruin by their obsession with the success of other family members on the one hand and the best friend on the other, and now none of it matters. Let that be a lesson to you. (How many lessons is that now?)

Once Patty and Richard have got over their brief, tempestuous affair – I can’t remember whether she says it’s the one they should have had all those decades ago, but she doesn’t have to anyway – she can get on with wishing she’d not burnt her bridges with Walter. Her mistake – yes, she’s still making them at the beginning of her chapter – is not to send any condolences to him about Lalitha’s death… and once you’ve done a thing like that it’s difficult to know how to put it right. So she doesn’t. Six years pass – at the end of which Richard, whom she meets again by chance, suggests she writes a final chapter just for Walter. This is what we’re reading, so when the autobiographer addresses ‘the reader’ it’s him she means. Ah. It still sounds like Franzen at his most literary, and not the work of a student majoring in sports studies… but hey.

Meanwhile. The final chapter takes us through the same period, not quite from Walter’s point of view. We’re back with the knowing authorial presence of the first chapter, and we’re back with the neighbours’-eye-view of the strange man who lives in the old lakeside house. A new development has appeared on the other side of the lake, and the residents are bemused, then enraged, by his increasingly fanatical attitudes. Franzen allows another Sarah Palin-style Republican to speak for all of them – or, rather, she nominates herself in that way that liberals hate so much – and he has Walter narrowing their inevitable battles down to one issue: the murder of the local songbird population by the new neighbours’ cats. It’s a neat trick: it seems absurd and plausible at the same time, a focus for all Walter’s frustrations at his inability to control any other aspect of the environment in general or his life in particular.

What more do I need to say about this chapter? For most of it Walter seems almost beyond hope, locked into a downward spiral of pain and, yes, that Berglundian refusal to let anybody help him. He talks to Joey and Connie – the sudden appearance of this visibly successful pair on his property makes the neighbours re-appraise him, slightly – and suffers weekly calls from Jessica…. It’s all a bit unsurprising until Patty decides to send him her final chapter, which he doesn’t read, and Richard sends him a CD, Songs For Walter, which he doesn’t play. But then… well, you know. Patty moves in, spends a spring and summer showing Sarah Palin a thing or two about how to succeed as the popular one in the neighbourhood – and then they move out. Again. The end.

8 December
At a book group meeting yesterday the consensus was that this novel isn’t as satisfying as The Corrections. One problem is Franzen’s insistence on presenting effects and then backtracking to explain causes, interminably. (I used the example of how we find out about Patty leaving, only later to be shown, at great length, the argument that leads to this.) Another is the wilful fracturing of the narrative, with often arbitrary sections of lives being stitched together for no reason that seems strictly necessary. One person suggested that story is the big imperative of current fiction: what you need are events, dear boy, events – and if you can make them a bit thriller-ish and/or sensational, so much the better. And… nobody really found the central love affairs particularly believable. This is a shame when Franzen builds a huge edifice on them, particularly (of course) on the love between Patty and Walter.

I’m blithely telling people that I really like the first third: Chapter 1, and Patty’s autobiography. I found it hard going after that, despite a lot of things beyond these chapters that I really liked. The end, again.


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