“On Freedom to Write” — Don DeLillo


Book Acquired, 9.06.11


The kind people at Picador sent me a copy of the trade paperback of this book called Freedom by some guy named Jonathan Franzen. The hardback came out last year, but it kinda went under the radar; one of those obscure underground reads. Maybe he’ll have more success in the paperback (it’s certainly lighter). The book has apparently been BeDazzled, too—a nice touch. The bird’s eye is this bumpy little bumpy bump—I tried to angle the cover so you might see it in the closeup below, but I’m not sure if it comes across.


Heroes of 2010 — Those Guys Who Stole Jonathan Franzen’s Glasses

On October 4th of this year, right in the midst of Franzen-mania (and Franzenfreude), two ballsy Londoners jacked Jonathan Franzen’s signature spectacles during a Hyde Park bookstore launch party for Freedom. They left a ransom note asking for $100,000, but were eventually caught, and the glasses were returned. Now, if only someone could do him a favor and steal his silly leather jacket because, jeez, c’mon.

An Obligatory Review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

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 Not Too Concerned What Happens to My Books After I’m Dead” — The AV Club Interviews Jonathan Franzen

The AV Club interviews Jonathan Franzen. Topics include his new book Freedom, posterity, Glenn Beck, Ian McEwan, and why Franzen still has an AOL account. Here’s Franzen, from the interview, discussing contemporary references in his books–

I’m not too concerned what happens to my books after I’m dead. And I am very concerned by what’s going on with the culture of reading and writing now. So I would not wrap myself in a toga and speak of timelessness regarding my work. It’s my experience that reading Dostoevsky, say, or reading Balzac—the books are full of these contemporary references, and there are feuds going on, and names are dropped, and you know that they’re significant. If you have a good edition, it’ll have six pages of notes at the back explaining what the reference is, because some good scholar has actually looked all of the stuff up. But I don’t really feel like it detracts from my reading of that, and in a perverse way, it actually makes it feel… [Pauses.]

I want to say something can’t become timeless unless it had first inhabited its own time. Undoubtedly, we only get 70 percent of Shakespeare, because the other 30 percent is references that are just completely lost. There are all of these in-jokes, these insider references and contemporary references. We’re so removed from that culture, we don’t even know they’re there. But he was having so much fun writing those plays, and part of the fun was putting all this other stuff in—all of the wordplay, taking a jab at this actor and that theater. He was having so much fun that it just became inseparable from the general fun of those plays, and reading them, and going to performances of them. And he maybe needs those little references to make it fun for him. Not to compare myself to Shakespeare. [Laughs.] But any writer nowadays, I think… I don’t think the book is about those references. It’s not a collection of in-jokes. It’s not some snarky contemporary satire. It’s no dis-fest. It’s about other things, and those things are there for the enjoyment of people who might get them.

The Obligatory Jonathan Franzen Post

So, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is out today. The follow-up to 2001’s The Corrections was already in a second printing before its release today, pretty much pointing to the book being “the literary event” of 2010 (whatever that means). I haven’t read Freedom yet so I don’t have an opinion about it–but it’s hard to not have an opinion about the opinions about Freedom, at least if you follow literary-type news. The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, even when they can find something to nitpick or quibble with. Obama picked up a copy last week on vacation. In an act of hyperbole so ridiculous as to turn comical, The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones called it “the novel of the century.” (Nevermind that the century isn’t even a decade old). But it’s probably the fact that Franzen appeared on the cover of Time magazine–the first writer in a decade to do so (the last was Stephen King)–that’s caused some professional jealousy and a backlash against Franzen. Again, this is all before the book has been released.

Yes, Franzenfreude. Authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner felt the need to speak out against coverage of Freedom, crying foul that their books were not receiving the same critical attention as the “white male literary darling.” You can read an interview with the pair here, where their position seems to be that their work, frequently on the bestseller lists, is dismissed as genre fare. I don’t know Weiner’s stuff but Picoult’s novels strike me as the sort of maudlin crap that get turned into Lifetime movies (which they do). Picoult and Weiner don’t just play the gender card though. No, they also whip out a populist argument, the idea that literary critics ought to give more weight to “what people actually read.” In a series of recent columns on the attention Freedom has garnered, Lorin Stein pointed out that “It has become immensely hard to get a “literary” writer the attention he or she deserves.” (The comments section of Stein’s posts showcase a remarkable debate about just what “literary fiction” is).

Stein is absolutely right of course. (Weiner and Picoult will have to console themselves by sobbing into their piles of money). Franzen’s Freedom has become an opportunity for those who love literary fiction–which might be an endangered species–to call attention to the fact that novels are important, that they can somehow diagnose and analyze the spirit of an age. In his article for The Guardian, William Skidelsky strips the rhetoric away and gets to the point–

Underneath the words “Great American Novelist”, Time‘s strapline ran: “He’s not the richest or most famous. His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future. But in his new novel, Jonathan Franzen shows us all the way we live now.” It isn’t hard to unpick the subtext here: “Remember, folks, there’s such a thing as serious literature; it has little to do with Dan Brown or Harry Potter, and these days most of us tend to ignore it, but it’s actually kind of important.”

At The Faster Times, Lincoln Michel is even brassier–

There has always been a segment of the population that does not like it when intelligent artistic work gets praise. These people cry foul when an Academy Award goes to a well-crafted film with limited distribution instead of the latest Hollywood blockbuster, they moan when magazines cover innovative indie musicians instead of the most recent Nickelback CD, and you better believe they can’t stand it when that elitist literary fiction gets awards and coverage that should be reserved for books that people are “actually reading.”

Much of the critical reception of Freedom, then, is more about how the public–the reading public–is to connect with and interact with novels in an age of new media, in an age where some like to pretend the literary novel has lost its relevance, in an age where bozos go around declaring manifestos against novels. While Freedom need not be the novel to “save” the novel, it also shouldn’t be an occasion for backbiting, jealousy, and backlash. Maybe everyone should just calm down and read the damn thing.

[UPDATE: Read our obligatory review of Freedom].

Obama Picks Up Franzen’s Freedom

Proving that he’s the kind of elitist Harvard-educated snob who reads literature, President Barack Obama picked up an advance copy of Jonathan Franzen’s forthcoming novel Freedom today. Obama also picked up copies of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony for daughters Sasha and Malia (spoilers for S & M, undoubtedly faithful Biblioklept readers both: Boo Radley isn’t so bad, that white dude raped his daughters, and they have to kill the pony’s mama. But not all in the same book). Also, our president is photographed outside the bookstore wearing what appears to be socks and sandals. (Okay, looked like socks and sandals in the light. But we’ll give BO the benefit of the doubt).

Author Jonathan Franzen Uses Video to Object to the Making of Author Videos

“I Finally Got Tired of Being Angry at Roth” — What Jonathan Franzen’s Been Reading

Time profiles Jonathan Franzen this week (part of the push for his new novel Freedom, out later this month). Franzen also talks about five works that have “inspired him recently.” Here are his comments on those books–

The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal

Instead of sitting for years at his writing desk, pulling his hair, Stendhal served with the French diplomatic corps in his favorite country, Italy, and then came home and dictated his novel in less than eight weeks: what a great model for how to be a writer and still have some kind of life! The book is at once deeply cynical and hopelessly romantic, all about politics but also all about love, and just about impossible to put down.

The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley

There’s nothing fancy about the writing in Smiley’s masterpiece, and yet every sentence of its eight hundred pages is clean and necessary. For the two weeks it took me to read it, I didn’t want to be anywhere else but in late-medieval Greenland, following the passions and feuds and farming crises of European settlers trying to survive in the face of ecological doom. It all felt weirdly and plausibly contemporary.
Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth

I finally got tired of being angry at Roth for his self-indulgent excesses and weak dialogue and thin female characters and decided to open myself to his genius for invention and his heroic lack of shame. Whole chunks of Sabbath’s Theater can be safely skipped, but the great stuff is truly great: the scene in which Mickey Sabbath panhandles on the New York with a paper coffee cup, for example, or the scene in which Sabbath’s best friend catches him relaxing in the bathtub and fondling his (the friend’s) young daughter’s underpants.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Wharton’s male characters suffer from some of the deficiencies that Roth’s female characters do, but the heroine of House of Mirth, Lily Bart, is one of the great characters in American literature, a pretty and smart but impecunious New York society woman who can’t quite pull the trigger on marrying for money. Wharton’s love for Lily is equal to the cruelty that Wharton’s story relentlessly inflicts on her; and so we recognize our entire selves in her.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

A lifelong heavy drinker with his most famous novel well behind him, Steinbeck set out to write a mythic version of his family’s American experience that would embody the whole story of our country’s lost innocence and possible redemption. There are infelicities on almost every page, and the fact that the book succeeds brilliantly anyway is a testament to the power of Steinbeck’s storytelling: to his ferocious will to make sense of his life and his country.

Books To Look Forward To In 2010

A couple of months ago, this cryptic postcard arrived in the mail:

A second novel from Ralph Ellison? Wasn’t that Juneteenth, the posthumous work pieced together from thousands of pages and notes by Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan? The one that was kinda sorta panned as a mess (or at least an incomplete vision)? A few weeks later, another postcard:

So we were still a little confused. Was Three Days Before the Shooting… a more complete version of Juneteenth, or a wholly separate novel? A week or two later, a third postcard showed up with some answers: Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting… is a re-edit of the material originally presented as Juneteenth back in 1999, expanded from 368 pages to 1136 pages. Hopefully, Ellison’s vision will be restored here. Modern Library plans to release Three Days Before the Shooting… in late January of 2010.

Don DeLillo‘s newest novel Point Omega (sounds like some G.I. Joe shit) will drop in early February of 2010. It’s a slim 128 pages, a novella really, which might be a nice change of pace. Here’s the cover:

Wells Towers had something of a hit this year with his collection of short stories, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, but maybe you didn’t read it because it was in oh-so cumbersome hardback. Thankfully, Picador will release Everything Ravaged in trade paperback in February of 2010. In the meantime, check out Chris Roth’s short adaptation of the title story:

There’s no release date yet for Jonathan Franzen‘s forthcoming novel Freedom, but it should come out next year. The novel is Franzen’s follow-up to his breakout hit, The Corrections. Can’t wait an indeterminate measure? The New Yorker published an excerpt called Good Neighborsearlier this year.

We began with a posthumous novel and will end with one: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King may or may not come out in 2010 (some websites are citing 2011 now). We will not parse through the problems of unfinished, post-death work here but simply say we want to read it. We were intrigued by–and enjoyed–the portions of the novel that have been published thus far, and we love Wallace, and we’re greedy, and we want more.