Saturday, 15 October 2011

Book of the Month: Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)

Last year I heard Jonathan Franzen in a literary programme being asked what he thought of the literary courses purporting to teach would-be fiction writers the tricks of the trade. Franzen heaved a deep sigh (which would have been heard at the back of the auditorium even without the microphone), his body posture suggesting this precisely was the sort of dross he was afraid he would be asked. His answer was surprisingly sincere and unironic. He said that the literary courses would not make a writer of you if you did not have the requisite talent; however they could teach you the technical aspects of novel writing which you would otherwise take a long time—as he did—to learn. He concluded by saying that he did not enrol in any literary course but taught regularly in several.

Franzen was on a promotion tour of Freedom which was published with a tempest of media hype not seen since Ayatollah Khomeini took out a fatwa against Salman Rushdie after the publication of Satanic Verses. The interviewer was fawning over Franzen in a manner that was disrespectful to her age, receiving every utterance of the writer as if he was revealing the secret   formula for the elixir of life.

Franzen then read out an extract from Freedom. If I remember correctly it was about a telephonic dialogue between someone called Joey and a woman named Carol. Joey used to go out with Carol’s daughter but had not called her since he went to university and Carol was (rightly) thinking that he was planning to ditch her daughter and was unhappy about it. I did not find the extract particularly riveting but that could have been down to Franzen’s peculiarly leaden and monotonous style of reading aloud.

Franzen’s 2001 novel, The Corrections, catapulted him to the position of a literary star. Accolades were showered on him like confetti by the critics; the novel won the National Book Award for that year (though not the Pulitzer), and was an international best seller.

I read Corrections during summer holidays a few years ago, and while I liked the novel a lot I wasn’t sure that it was the greatest novel I had read.

Freedom is Franzen’s first work of fiction after a long hiatus of nine years since Corrections was published. This time round the media frenzy was even more. (The word ‘frenzy’ should be interpreted advisedly. The frenzy surrounding the publication of a literary novel is not to be mistaken for the frenzy outside White Hart Lane when Spurs play Arsenal in Premiership Football; no one gets hurt. A few gushing Interviews in the culture sections of broadsheets and ‘lively discussions’ on book blogs qualify, in my view, for literary frenzy. To be fair Franzen’s mug did appear on the front cover of the Time magazine, the first novelist to do so in ten years since Stephen King; and that’s supposed to be a big deal.)

I read Freedom after it came out in paperback, thinking, as I started reading the novel, let me see what the fuss is about. In my experience the ‘long awaited’ follow-ups to literary masterpieces rarely live up to expectations. Donna Tartt’s d├ębut novel, The Secret History, was sensational. She followed it, more than a decade later, by The Little Friend, which was a damp squib.

I was therefore not sure that I was going to like Freedom; but tell you what, I loved it; I loved it more than The corrections.

In Freedom Franzen tells the story of a middle-class Midwestern couple—Walter and Patty Berglund—, their two children Joey and Jessica, and their friend Richard Katz. These are the main characters. There is a raft of secondary, peripheral, characters that enrich this magnificent novel.

The novel is divided into several sections. In the opening section Franzen introduces the reader to Walter and Patty, the baby-boomers who once lived in St Paul, Minnesota, a run-down district before it was gentrified by the likes of Walter and Patty.  The novel opens with the omnipresent narrator (whose presence is felt in all sections save those which are memoirs of Patty Berglund, entitled ‘Mistakes were Made’) informing the reader that Walter, who now lives in Washington D.C., has made a mess of his professional life by getting embroiled in projects of dubious ethicality. The minor notoriety Walter has attracted, the reader is informed, is in stark contrast to the liberal, left-of-the-centre views the neighbours of the Berglunds in St Paul associated him with.

The panoramic introduction gives the readers some idea as to the direction the novel will take. In the subsequent sections the reader is treated to a grand tour, via various detours in the marriage of Walter and Patty, and lives of other protagonists, the state of health of American society, including but not limited to (as I understood it) the slow yet steady decline of liberalism. It is also a compassionate commentary on the struggles and foibles of the developed-world middle classes. At the heart of the story is the family of Walter and Patty Berglund; Freedom is a family saga. Both Walter and Patty have their baggages to carry. Patty is the eldest child of a New York Jewish mother with left-leaning political views and ambitions, and an ‘exceedingly gentile’ father who is a barrister. Patty, who had a potential career as a basketball player—never encouraged by her parents—that was thwarted by an injury, wants to put as much distance—physical, emotional and cognitive—between herself and her mother. Her ambition is to be a good housewife and mother. Walter, a third generation Swede, is the middle child of his parents, and has spent his whole childhood disliking his alcoholic father and sociopathic brothers. He too wants to lead a life different from his parents. Walter and Patty meet first in college and Patty is secretly attracted to Walter’s best friend and roommate Richard Katz (a colonel Gaddafi look-alike), another product of a dysfunctional family, who has musical ambitions. Richard whose friendship with Walter—as Walter acknowledges at one point—is characterized by brinkmanship covets Patty, but it is the slow and steady Walter whom Patty marries and settles into what she hopes to be a life-time of marital bliss. In due course they have two children—Jessica and Joey. Patty comes to have such intense relationship with Joey that his only way not to be suffocated by the possessive love of his mother is to rebel in a manner calculated to enrage his parents. Joey starts a relationship with the next door neighbour’s daughter who Patty thinks is ‘totally unsuitable’ for her son, not least because of the difference in the social status of the two families. Walter, a devoted conservationist, gets entangled in morally questionable schemes of a multi-billionaire coal baron (with close links to Neo-cons) who is apparently obsessed with creating a protected habitat of the rapidly declining songbird, which necessitates shady dealings with other multinationals and involve blowing off mountain tops. Walter, hired by the coal baron at dizzying salary, convinces himself that what he is doing is going to be of benefit in the long run even though it may make him look like a conscienceless hypocrite in the short run. Walter is ably assisted in maintaining this mirage by his attractive Indian assistant Lalitha. Lalitha, engaged to an Indian neurosurgeon, has clearly fallen for her boss; and Walter whose marriage to Patty, who is sinking deep into middle-age depression and problem drinking, is floundering, is also attracted to Lalitha; however he is not going to be waylaid into an affair because of his notions of fidelity to his spouse. What Walter and Patty definitely do not need is trouble that would jeopardize their relationship further. The trouble arrives in the form of Richard Katz who, after years of obscurity as a musician, has, to his discomfort, hit the popularity jackpot. Patty sleeps with Richard in the Berglunds’ holiday cottage, bequeathed to Walter by his mother, while Walter is running the busy schedule of enabling multinationals to inflict further damage on nature and fending off come-ons from Lalitha. This will, in due course, precipitate a crisis in the Berglund marriage. Walter’s son, in the meanwhile, is running his own profiteering schemes, in partnership with other unscrupulous characters, which involve fleecing the US army in Iraq with faulty army vehicles for exorbitant prices. Joey has Republican sympathies and Walter’s own lucrative dealings with the Neo-cons do not temper his horror at his son’s betrayal of the ideology.

It all ends well, you will be pleased to know, for the Berglunds (well, more or less). When the novel ends Walter and Patty are back together (Lalitha having the decency to die in a tragic road crash), and their children are settled.

Freedom is a neat novel. Despite its various strands and the vast expanses of time covered (a large part of the novel focuses on the years after 2001, but the time period stretches from the 1970s to present day), Franzen brings everything neatly together towards the end, yet succeeds in not making it appearing too neat or formulaic.

Via the Berglund  family saga Franzen touches several contemporary issues relevant both to America and wider world: the atrocities at the World Trade Centre in 2001 and the ill-advised invasion of Iraq; destruction of the natural habitats of birds and animals (a subject apparently close to Franzen’s heart; he is particularly fascinated by the songbird—as mentioned in his 2007 memoir The Discomfort Zone—which Walter so valiantly tries to protect) and the effect on environment; and fatigue and decline of liberal thinking in America (Franzen presumably is a Democrat, but Walter, the fictional democrat, opines at one point that there is nothing wrong with his wife’s mental state that a job wouldn’t resolve). All these themes blend so well in the narrative structure of the novel that at no stage do they seem like an unnecessary add-on.

That is not all. One of the many reasons why this novel has struck a chord with wider book-reading public (I think) is that it touches upon and gives sometime-ironic-sometimes-sincere comment upon many contemporary issues close to the heart of the developed world middle-classes. In that sense the novel is similar to The Corrections, only better, as it is not as inward looking as The Corrections.

Ultimately, though, the novel succeeds because of Franzen’s eminently believable, well-rounded and compassionate portraits of the worlds of his protagonists. The story of Walter and Patty and their children and their friend Richard is the story of you and me. And it is told in a manner that is funny, witty, compassionate, humane, and, above all, utterly absorbing. (Not easy, this; Ian McEwan could not pull it off in Solar which is on the theme of global warming; there is a cheeky nod to McEwan’s Atonement in this novel, when Joey struggles to interest himself in the descriptions of rooms and paintings.) Freedom is a very well-written novel. At almost 600 pages it is humongous, but it is also a literary page-turner.

In her memoir Patty Berglund mentions that she is reading War and Peace; she even compares herself at one point to Narasha. Has Franzen written a modern day War and Peace? I wouldn’t know, as I haven’t read War and Peace.  Is Freedom the Great American Novel? I wouldn’t know about it either, because I haven’t read many American novels. What I can say is Freedom is a smashing good read, one of the most enjoyable novels I have read so far this year. Unhesitatingly recommended.