Do you know about the Oedipal complex? That Freudian thing? Of course you do. But if for some reason you don’t, or need a refresher, here’s a quick summary from one of my all time favorite lyricists, David Byrne: “Mom and Pop / They will fuck you up / For sure.” That joyful nugget is from one of the last songs Talking Heads recorded, “Sax and Violins,” a great little piece on modern life that is far more entertaining (and much shorter) than Jonathan Franzen’s over-hyped new novel Freedom.
Freedom works hard to prove that Mom and Pop will fuck you up. Your family will fuck you up. Then you will fuck up your own kids. Franzen’s (boring, oh my god are they boring) characters seem bound to play out repeated variations of the Oedipal complex. Furthermore, according to Freedom, our extra-familial relationships are merely substitutions or recapitulations of our own Oedipal family dramas. Even worse, Franzen seems to suggest in Freedom that all our ideologies, our passions, our beliefs are really just formed by our “morbidly competitive” impulses, impulses born in our fucked-up, Oedipal families. (“Morbidly competitive,” by the way, is Franzen’s term).
The novel centers on one family, the Berglunds, a perfectly normal (in the upper-middle-class-white-educated sense of “perfectly normal”) fucked up family of four. I’m dispassionate about this novel, so I’ll just lazily crib a short summary from a well-written piece I’m largely simpatico with, Ruth Franklin’s review at TNR—
Freedom takes place over a period of about thirty years, but its primary focus is on the George W. Bush era. When it begins, Patty and Walter Berglund, college sweethearts, are among the first wave of urban pioneers putting the gentry back into gentrification, fixing up a house in a blighted area of St. Paul that they will soon populate with their two children. The short preamble offers an overview of their lives from the perspective of their neighbors, from the time they move in as a young couple to their departure around the time the children leave for college. Patty, a former college basketball star who once made “second-team all-American,” is a mother and housewife in the newly popular liberal model: “tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles and barfed-upon old snow. . . . Ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel.” She bakes cookies for the neighbors on their birthdays and opens her house to their children. But Patty’s baking and mothering cannot keep her home together: her son Joey, while still in high school, moves out to live down the street with his girlfriend Connie and her family, which happens to include the only Republican on the block. The strain that their child’s defection places on the Berglunds’ marriage is obvious to all. When they leave in the early 2000s for Washington, where Walter has a new job doing something vaguely ominous involving the coal industry, one of the neighbors remarks, “I don’t think they’ve figured out yet how to live.”
This overture sets the stage for the rest of the book, which begins and more or less ends with a ridiculously well-written journal by Patty. Patty (who is somehow a more-than-competent novelist despite having no training) allows the audience to witness her marriage crumbling from her perspective; we are also supposed to sympathize with her because her own childhood was fucked up by her family. Also, she was date-raped, a manipulative detail that adds little to the narrative (I’d call it Nice Writing at its worst). Patty’s seemingly interminable journal eventually gives way to shorter chapters focusing on Joey and Walter. There’s also Patty and Walter’s lifelong friend, ex-punk/would-be indie rock star Richard Katz. Much of the novel revolves around Patty’s desire for Richard and Walter’s desire for Richard (no homo) and Richard’s desire for what he thinks Walter and Patty have and Walter’s desire to be desired by Patty the way that Patty desires Richard and blah blah blah. It’s one big boring circle of “morbidly competitive” Oedipal tension. Franzen spends most of his time expounding on how each character feels about how another character feels about him or her in an endless solipsistic chain that fails to enlighten or even amuse. Too much telling, not enough showing.
Freedom threatens to become interesting when it picks up the Walter narrative. Walter, a die-hard environmentalist oozing oodles of liberal guilt, is hard at work with a bevy of über-Republicans and defense contractors and Texas oil men to save the planet. Via the novel’s ever-present free indirect style, Walter goes to great, finicky pains to explain how working with these creeps will actually, like, save the ecosystem. Hey, doesn’t “eco” come from the Greek “oikos,” meaning “house”? Why yes it does! Must be some kind of parallel there–save the planet, save your house, save your fucked up family . . . Only none of that pans out; instead the section gets bogged down in a cluster of details that mingle with Walter’s increasing attraction (no, deep love and lust) for his twenty-something assistant. Meanwhile, his son Joey is growing up all wrong and fucked up, falling in with neocons who hide their war profiteering in a cloak of patriotic ideology. The democratic freedom we think we cherish is a lie; the personal freedoms we struggle to obtain–by escaping our fucked-up families–is ultimately a damning, soul-devouring curse. The American Dream is just morbid competitiveness.
If Franzen intended to write a zeitgeist novel, a How We Live Now novel, I wonder if this is this really what he thinks the spirit of our age boils down to? He gets many of the details of the last decade right, but the prose is bloodless and the characters are dull, unlikable, and unsympathetic. Of course, real people can be dull, unlikable, and unsympathetic, but that usually means that we don’t want to hang out with them, let alone read about their fears and desires for almost 600 pages. If our own families are dull, at least they are usually likable and sympathetic–at least to us, anyway (I love and like my family, in any case). Freedom feels like a novel with nothing at stake, or, perhaps, a novel where everything has already been lost, where outcomes are drawn null and void from the outset. And really, I wouldn’t mind all of that if it wasn’t so tedious. It practically buckles under its own sense of weighted importance in trying to reveal how Oedipal tension underwrites ideology. Oedipus might have been fated from the get-go, but at least there was some action and excitement in his story–some level of heroism, anyway. And because I’ve brought up Oedipus again, I’ll indulge myself and cite Talking Heads one more time.
In “Once in a Lifetime,” probably the group’s most famous song, Byrne sings, “You may ask yourself / Well, how did I get here?” The song’s narrator wonders if he can escape time, wonders if his suburban confine is a trap or a paradise; there’s a sense of sublime ridiculousness to it all, as if he might transcend time and space and contemporary life and take off “Into the blue again /Into silent water.” He’s trying to navigate the weird gap between suburbia and ecology, between duty and freedom. It is a song that at once recognizes the existential despair of a modern, suburban life, comments on its absurdity, and then surpasses it heroically. The song is undeniably about a figure in crisis, but that figure decides that “Time isn’t holding us / Time isn’t after us.” That figure is freer than the characters in Freedom, and freer still in his weird warp of ambiguity (a warp concretely codified in Byrne’s bizarre dance in the video). The hero of “Once in a Lifetime” transmutes existential absurdity into sound and vision; Oedipus saves his country (and provides the audience with catharsis) via his ironic, tragic self-mutilation; Patty and Walter kiss and make up. It’s a dreadfully facile ending, the worst kind of wish-fulfillment that seems wholly unsupported by the narrative preceding it.
But perhaps this is an unfair way to review a book that is apparently so important–to compare it to Oedipus Rex and a few Talking Heads songs. And I’ll admit that if Freedom had not been so wildly over-praised in the past few months, I’d probably try to find something positive to say about it. So I’ll try: Franzen is deeply intelligent, even wise, and his analysis of the past decade is perhaps brilliant. It’s also incredibly easy to read, but this is mostly because it requires so little thought from the reader. Franzen has done all the thinking for you. The book has a clear vision, a mission even, but it lacks urgency and immediacy; it is flaccid, flabby, overlong. It moans where it should howl. Nevertheless, the book is not a failure, at least not on its own terms. I believe that Franzen has written the book that he intended to write, that he has documented the zeitgeist the way that he perceives it–I just happen to find his analysis dull and his characters irredeemably uninteresting. Do not feel obligated to read Freedom.
I’m lazy. I let other people do good reporting and then hijack their work. Here’s Dennis Johnson at MobyLives citing a recent Guardian story:
What, exactly, is the point of a dustjacket, asks Peter Robins in this Guardian story. “The clue can’t be in the name: on the shelf, the most dust-prone part of a book is the top, which a jacket doesn’t cover … the jacket remains an unnecessary and vulnerable encumbrance.” And now, he says, “some in the book trade appear to be reaching the same conclusion.”
The Guardian article cites a number of recent books (including Zadie Smith’s latest, Changing My Mind) that forgo jackets in favor of art printed directly on the cover. I wish this trend would normalize in publishing. Dustjackets are annoying. They are ineffective as bookmarks, they tear and curl easily, and they tend to slip off of the book. They make grasping books difficult, especially larger volumes, and I always find myself removing them to read. Because I don’t want to throw away the “cover” of the book, the jacket has hence to languish in some weird droopy unstackable blip in a random corner of my house or office. Again, annoying. I can think immediately of three recentish books which are far more lovable aesthetic objects; all eschew dustjackets.
David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries is a beautiful cloth-bound volume; the biker-icon, title, and author appear to be embossed but are actually slight depressions. A simple sticker on the back of the book displays retail cost and isbn info. The inside front cover and first page display the blurb and author info that one would usually find on a wrap-around. There’s something wonderfully tactile, warm, and pleasing about the book. It’s also a really good read.
I bought Douglas Coupland’s novel Hey Nostradamus! despite its silly name because I was enamored of its lovely embossed cover. There’s a smooth elegance to the design. The back cover repeats the kneeling figure, leaving room for embossed blurbs. I should really get around to reading it.
McSweeney’s hardcover edition of Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital doesn’t feature anything as fancy as cloth or embossing. No, it’s just a plain old image–a good design, to be sure–but nothing that you wouldn’t expect on a dustjacket. Only there’s no cumbersome dustjacket. McSweeney’s issued the book with a slight wrap-around–more like a bookbelt than a dustjacket–displaying isbn and other info. The peripheral bookbelt was easy to throw away. McSweeney’s has released plenty of beautiful jacketless books, but they also know how to do a jacket right. Several hardback editions of McSweeney’s Quarterly (numbers 13 and 23, for instance) feature “dustjackets” that unfold to reveal short short stories, comics, and paintings. If you’re going to do a dustjacket, make it an aesthetic object worth keeping.
David Byrne’s new book, Bicycle Diaries (new in hardback from Viking), is an engaging, discursive, and often meditative memoir about the Talking Heads founder’s strange experiences bicycling through some of the world’s most distinct cities. Byrne uses W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (one of our favorite books) as an entry point for his book. Like Sebald, Byrne attempts to synthesize history, memory, art, architecture, philosophy, science, and a host of other subjects in his writings on cities like Berlin, London, Manila, Istanbul, and San Francisco. The result is a book that is profound and very readable; Byrne communicates complex ideas in ways that are both fun to read and also highly relevant to an age of changing attitudes about how we are to get where we are going.
While hardly a political screed, Bicycle Diaries does contain a central argument: plainly put, Byrne suggests that cities that are bicycle-friendly tend to be more human-friendly, and that the modern/industrial reliance on cars and trucks has resulted in fundamental disconnects between people and their communities. In the first chapter, “American Cities,” Byrne surveys a number of decidedly unglamorous American cities like Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Columbus, as well as smaller towns like Sweetwater, Texas. Byrne’s discussion of Detroit is particularly affecting. From the vantage of his bicycle, Byrne sees a Detroit most will miss, a place of modern ruins and decay. “In a car, one would have sought out a freeway, one of the notorious concrete arteries, and would never have seen any of this stuff,” Byrne writes. “Riding for hours right next to it was visceral and heartbreaking–in ways that looking at ancient ruins aren’t. I recommend it.”
Byrne repeatedly communicates this will to immediacy, for unmediated experiences in Bicycle Diaries. He’s the explorer of the real, trying to understand why folks don’t ride bikes in Buenos Aires, or trying to figure out the cultural significance of Imelda Marcos to the people of the Philippines, or pondering the brutal fauna of Australia. Byrne’s bike rides, as well as his music and art careers, give the book something like a center, but Bicycle Diaries thrives on digressions, asides on ring tones or the Stasi or amateur backyard wrestling or the history of PowerPoint. We loved these moments: it’s when Byrne relates the sad history of George Eastman, founder of Kodak, or when he tells the story of Australian outlaw legend Ned Kelly that Byrne best communicates the thrill of exploration.
Byrne’s voice is ever-earnest and never didactic. There’s a plainness and honesty to his delivery that often seems in direct contrast with the content of his message. And this is the key to the book’s success–and perhaps, more generally speaking, Byrne’s career–this ability to see, to suspend the biases and blocks and filters that too often mediate our perception, and to actually see what is actually around us. From his earliest days in the Talking Heads, Byrne displayed an uncanny knack for turning his eyes on his own culture like an alien ethnographer, yet he always did it with empathy and engagement, and never with smack of clinical remove that might otherwise characterize such a project. In Bicycle Diaries, Byrne approaches America’s reliance on roads and oil and cars with an admirable pragmatism. Where some might scold (and, implicitly, ride a high horse), Byrne is always positive, pointing out the numerous advantages of returning to a community-oriented way of life, with bicycling as a simple and efficient means of getting around in lieu of the cars–and attendant urban/suburban/exurban sprawl–that keep us separated. Byrne also suggests a number of ways that communities and cities can work toward making bicycling a more viable option for their citizens. He even provides a few fun bicycle rack designs for his hometown New York (and yes, they got made).
Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that the book itself is a beautiful aesthetic object. Why don’t more publishers skip those annoying, flimsy dust jackets, and opt instead for something like Bicycle Diaries lovely embossed cloth deal? Just a thought. There are lots and lots of black and white photographs, many by Byrne himself, that genuinely shed light on Byrne’s narrative (the design here is of course reminiscent of Sebald’s use of photographs, only Byrne’s aren’t cryptic and actually make sense in the text). It’s great to love both the content and the design of a book, but we’d really expect nothing less from Byrne. It’s also great when a hero of ours lives up to and then surpasses our expectations–we’ve always loved Byrne’s music and his ideas, so it’s great that we can add books to that list. Highly recommended.
We are just loving the advance reading copy of David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries that we got in the mail today. Plenty of quotable material from Byrne’s discursive journeys, but why not share one of our favorite musician’s thoughts on ring tones?
I hear the faint cacophony of many distant cell-phone rings in the train car–snippets of Mozart and hip-hop, old-school ring tones, and pop-song fragments–all emanating out of minuscule phone speakers. All tinkling away here and there. All incredibly poor reproductions of other music. These ring tones are “signs” for “real” music. This is music not meant to be actually listened to as music, but to remind you of and refer to other, real, music. These are audio road signs that proclaim “I am a Mozart person” or, more often, “I can’t even be bothered to select a ring tone.” A modern symphony of music that is not music but asks that you remember music.