Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Franzen's Freedom - From Literature!

I gave up on reading Franzen's Freedom after 120 pages.

I just could not make myself care about these characters.  These are shallow, petty people of modest accomplishment being mean and hurtful to their families in shallow, petty ways.  Afraid I'd be missing something, I jumped ahead a couple hundred pages, and then again, and then to the end.  I kept finding myself among the same folks, having the predictable affairs, struggling with the predictable rage.

I get that these characters have failings.  I get that sad, unfortunate things have happened to them.  I get that they are just like us.  I just don't care.

I suppose Franzen has captured something about suburban white Americans at the present time.  Maybe folks can come back to this book in a hundred or a thousand years and say, "Oh, so that's how the common people were living in the early 21st century," and they'll have a record of common lives that might have been left out of cable programming and news feeds.  A distillation of white, American ordinariness.

Time Magazine built up a great deal of hype over this novel, putting Franzen on the cover even though they haven't featured an author on their cover for a decade.  And they mentioned his spat with Oprah, saying that if she didn't feature this book in her book-club, she may very well be passing on the greatest novel of the 21st century.

It was clear that this was a major BOOK EVENT, at a time when BOOK EVENTS are precious and rare.  It reminded me of the hype around Infinite Jest, the book event of the 1990s, when David Foster Wallace (Franzen's good friend) was given perhaps the last American book tour to publicize this massive brick of literary ambition.  Wallace's book tour was captured rather effectively by David Lipsky in a book-length interview which stands, I believe, as a monument to the end of this particular "literary" era (and as such is just about as interesting as anything Wallace wrote himself).  As I got caught up in the hype for Freedom, I started to think that, maybe, the era of this particular BOOK EVENT was not over, that maybe there was room for another novelist superstar or two.

But Wallace's book was challenging, intricate, and absurd.  He may have been writing about ordinary folks, but he did it in a way that required being intensely alert and careful in your reading.  Wallace was a master of the literary gamesmanship that the 20th century liberal arts education told us we should aspire to consume.  Whether the production and consumption of such work was a worthwhile endeavor is still up for debate.  Are we really better off for dragging ourselves through Finnegan's Wake or Gravity's Rainbow, say?

Franzen's has sidestepped this whole question about "literary" writing by keeping his prose simple, easy, breezy, and in some places, flat out lazy.  (He handles the mine-field of a sex scene by writing "He fucked her like a brute.")

I suppose it had to be done.  After a century of post-modernism, someone had to say, "Hey, what if we stripped all the pretentious language games out of the literary novel and saw what was left?"  And what we got was Freedom, written with the simple, clear language of a mystery, but without the mystery.  An adventure without adventure, a thriller sans thrills.

For better or worse, people had to struggle with Pynchon and Joyce.  But one could get through this lengthy novel in a weekend, absorb everything it has to say, shrug, and move on.

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