Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: book review, books, franzen, freedom, jonathan franzen, literature, middle america, oprah, walter berglund
One of my problems with reading contemporary fiction is that it’s easy to be too affected by the reviews and the general reception a book is receiving – I’ll read the book, but resist buying into the praise it’s been receiving. So I wonder if my thoughts on Freedom would be different if it weren’t for the wide attention, the positive reviews in the Times, the Picoult/Weiner uproar, the Oprah selection.
Freedom is, of course, Franzen’s first novel since 2001′s The Corrections, and as such it’s not surprising that it received the amount of attention it did. The novel follows members of the middle-class Berglund family, mainly Patty and Walter Berglund and their son Joey. (Their daughter Jessica’s voice is notably absent from much of the novel.) Franzen’s characters work in and through 9/11, the Iraq War, and a growing awareness of impending environmental disaster.
I think Franzen is a skilled writer. His prose isn’t showy, but neither is it overly workmanlike; he strikes a nice balance between florid and bare writing. That said, there was something about the book that I felt was lacking. In part there was a sameness of voice throughout. Much of the novel is composed of Patty Berglund’s diary, but the diary is written in the third person and in a voice nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the novel. It’s only when she makes reference to “the autobiographer,” as in, “…which the autobiographer fears her reader won’t want to hear about but which she will mention anyway,” that I remember whose story I’m reading.
Over at the Reading Ape there is a great review of Freedom exploring, in part, this issue of the similarity of voices throughout the novel, and the trouble Franzen has writing women. I see some of the same problems with their son Joey’s voice: Joey may be about my age, but when I read him I see a little Walter Berglund, with more interest in money and politics that are farther to the right, but at heart not the voice of a 20-something college student.
Joey, is followed most heavily during his early college years. He’s so precocious as to absolve the need to write the voice of an average 20-year-old, and Franzen occasionally slips up in a way that makes me wonder if he’s capable of writing such a voice.
That said, the book is good. At heart, the characters seem trying to find what sort of person they are and how that person should be labeled, as when Joey retrieves the wedding ring he accidentally swallowed:
…when he emerged from the bathroom…he was a different person. He could see this person so clearly, it was like standing outside himself. He was the person who’d handled his own shit to get his wedding ring back. This wasn’t the person he’d thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he’d been free to choose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual definite someone, rather than a collection of contradictory potential someones.
It’s the attempt to seek that defining aspect of themselves that resides beneath Freedom‘s plot. Despite the book’s title, the characters don’t seem so much free as free to explore what they inevitably are. Patty and Walter’s relationship has an air of not-quite-rightness, but although they and others sometimes realize this imperfect fit, it seems impossible that they should not be together. Their relationship, as so many other aspects of their lives, is not a choice but something that just is.
Freedom is probably one of the best books I’ve read this year, but it’s one with which I have a lot of problems. There is nothing about the story so distinctive that I’m sure I’ll remember it a year or even a month from now, but maybe that’s how it’s meant to be; Franzen writes about the fairly average couplings and breakings of a family’s life, and although he may approximate the lives of a certain class of Americans, there is nothing of real distinction in the lives of middle-class Americans who lack the freedom to escape their characters and their pasts and remake themselves as they dream of being. Rather, they are able mostly to circle the facts of their lives and what those facts say about them as people.
I wonder if my lukewarm feelings for this novel aren’t due in part to the situation in which I’m reading it. I’m a middle-class American (albeit not one who has ever earned $8000 a month, let alone on a summer job as Joey does), but given where I am now, I find it hard to worry over the lives, the minor hurts and inability to achieve full selfhood (or something) of, well, middle-class Americans. Coming home to read this book after a day spent at school and, for one period a day, helping an illiterate third-grader to write in English, overwhelmingly aware of the futility of this work and that in an ideal world I would be teaching her the Albanian alphabet rather than the English one, I found it hard to get rid of the “Who gives a shit, really?” running through my head at parts of the novel. In some ways the Berglunds’ story and their attempts to learn, as Joey does, who they really are, is similar to my own story, but faced with the thought of a girl who will grow up in a poor economy, unable to read, as a minority in a country still learning to deal with minorities despite long experience, I found it hard to care.
Filed under: Commercial Fiction | Tags: book reviews, books, brooklyn, chick lit, huffington post, internet wars, jennifer weiner, jodi picoult, jonathan franzen, literature, new york times, nick hornby, philadelphia, things that are not that important but get us all riled up anyway, women writers
One of the effects of being in the Peace Corps is a steady mental decline leading me to read books that I would not have glanced at in the states, or would not have owned up to reading if I had. John Grisham, Stephen King, Jennifer Weiner, Elizabeth George, Rick Riordan, have all made a steady creep onto my bookshelf, with the effect being that my appreciation for what they do has grown immeasurably.* Because even though Stephen King did that one book in which everyone’s teeth fall out, leading me to have a nightmare that one of the other volunteers here lost all but one of her front teeth, and which led to a few unnerving incidents around these parts given the number of people missing several or a mouthful of teeth, and even though all of John Grisham’s books end with a lawyer deciding he doesn’t want to be a lawyer and driving off into the sunset, these guys are all pretty good at what they do. Which is writing books that may not make a great artistic statement, but attract and entertain readers.
Of course, Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult have brought this up recently, because of the New York Times’s penchant for reviewing white, male authors from Brooklyn, rather than books they’ve written. But to me – and this has nothing to do with Weiner and Picoult being women, or writing “chick lit” or not being from Brooklyn – it seems obvious that the Times and similar papers wouldn’t review their books. It may be an unclear line, but there is a line between commercial and literary fiction. If commercial fiction is written mainly for entertainment rather than artistic reasons, I don’t see the need to review it; book reviews do, after all, focus heavily on the artistic aspects of a work of fiction. To review a John Grisham novel seems just as strange to me as to review a Jodi Picoult one. Readers are coming to these books because they want a certain type of entertainment.** No one needs a book review to tell them that Jennifer Weiner has written another novel about a woman finding herself and/or romance, or that Stephen King has written another horror novel. We all know anyway.
The claim that the Times tends overwhelmingly to review white male authors may have merit, but it seems that no one so far has had the energy to dig up these numbers. The claim that all these young white male authors are from Brooklyn throws me off a bit, as it’s a statement that has no basis in actual fact, and rather stinks of someone looking in at the “cool” kids, forever left on the outside.*** And I get this whole sense of there being a certain literary style right now that has maybe gone too far – involving a few too many ex-hipsters, a few too many MFA degrees, and too many doubled reviews in both the Times’s Sunday Book section and the regular old Times.
When Jennifer Weiner says, “when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book – in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention”, though, I want to know just what she’s talking about. Because I’m not sure I can go with this blanket statement, that all critics apply such standards to all women writers. Rather, the sense of the whole HuffPo piece seems to be “My books aren’t getting reviewed, the topics I write about aren’t taken seriously, but I am going to couch these complaints in such a manner that I can speak for all female authors.” Certain complaints, like that the Times reviews far more mysteries or horror novels than chick lit, have merit, but again – why is a paper that has so little space for book reviews reviewing books that don’t have a whole lot of artistic merit to begin with?
I’m not dismissing the value of these books, because I really, really, really do like some of them. But why do we have to apply a kind of false equality to everything in our lives, including what we read? A Jonathan Franzen novel and a Nick Hornby novel are not the same things, so why should they be treated in the same manner? In most worlds, for most authors of “literary” fiction, there isn’t going to be any commercial success; why not throw them the review pages so they can draw some slight pleasure from their royalty-free lives? And if an author is located prominently on the bestseller lists each year when her new novel comes out, why cry foul when newspapers don’t review those books? Your average reader can tell the difference between a piece of literary and commercial fiction, and it seems that all that’s left is for the authors to accept that they may not have achieved the artistic greatness they dream of, but that they are good enough at what they do that a Michiko Kakutani review, in their minds, lacks the value of one million hardback copies sold.****
* I want to say, “my appreciation has grown ten-fold!” but I think my feelings about these authors started at around zero, thus rendering such a statement meaningless. (This is not meant as a statement of my superiority or some such thing, but more to say…I can’t believe it took me so long to read The Time Traveler’s Wife or Jennifer Weiner, who has gotten an obscene amount of coverage in the Philadelphia papers my whole life as a result of, you know, being from Philadelphia. [And does that seem entirely fair? Philadelphia is always so proud of its own that our book coverage is a little odd.])
** When I read a John Grisham novel, I expect to read about a young lawyer who will become tangled up with some scurrilous crowd or have some other such adventures, and who at end will decide not to be a lawyer, thus reinforcing my plans to not attend law school.
*** Brooklynites do have this air about them, which is one reason I prefer Philadelphia, City of Brotherly Love. At least everyone there knows they are kind of lame…unless they are Brooklyn transplants seeking cheaper rent.
**** Rather than being remaindered, the fate of the books of many of those maligned white, male, Brooklyn-based authors.