It was for the best that Jonathan Franzen angered Oprah Winfrey, following her announcement that his novel The Corrections would be part of her program’s Book Club. The resulting publicity surrounding his being disinvited from the show didn’t hurt the novel’s sales, and there was likely little the two could have discussed to any useful end.
Though Franzen is affable and thoughtful in his meetings with media figures, his fictional portraits of America are dark – they buzz with smart, ironic characters who find it impossible to be at ease – in a way that is at odds with Winfrey’s goal of sunny uplift. As young Americans at the top of their field, Franzen and Winfrey might be said to offer uniquely contrary views of their country’s successes and failures.
Franzen’s new novel, Freedom (HarperCollins Canada), is as an examination of American verities, ideals and desires. Set in part in Minnesota in the middle years of this decade, it is not entirely removed from the calamity of Sept. 11, 2001. But it is more directly focused on contemporary environmental idealism and the apocalyptic fears that can drive such ideals.
The bravura early chapters of Freedom take place in St. Paul, Minn., and so, tell a story about a place and time that is fresh with particularity and exoticism for readers who live in or know American locales more readily found in fiction. The writer who haunts these sections is F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was himself from St. Paul, and whose masterful, lyrical critique of the American dream, The Great Gatsby, is one of the books readers might want to reach for upon finishing Freedom.
In interviews, Franzen repeats his desire to create popular narratives with characters and plot lines that grab readers through their sheer energy. In this, he succeeds in Freedom, with its detailed portrait of Walter and Patty Berglund, who stand as representative figures of their age. In his satiric portrait of Patty, Franzen confronts the idealism as well as the materialism and attendant emptiness that he sees at the core of his generation’s middle-class ideals. Here, it is Philip Roth’s American Pastoral that seems to underwrite the family romance that tears the Berglunds apart. Franzen shares Roth’s fascination with the way that parents, meaning well but doing worse, create private disasters they cannot escape.
This aspect of Freedom may feel corrosive, or at least provocative to readers who hope that a child and a parent can share a straightforward, uncompromised friendship. Such things evade the Berglunds and most everyone else they come into contact with. It is from such difficulties between smart, self-conscious, often enervated characters that much of the novel’s narrative energy comes.
One of Franzen’s key differences from a writer like Roth is his disinterest in fixing his narrative in relation to a single community. Themes associated with Jewish American life have a strange and haunting presence in the novel, but Franzen is interested in “America” in the broadest terms, letting his narrative shift from the Midwest, to New York City and farther south to catch the broadest exemplary range of American social and private life.
In the novel’s bigness (576 pages) – its length and reach and detail – it is reminiscent of the most challenging work by Don DeLillo, whose astringent, bleakly funny style lurks beneath the surface of Franzen’s prose. And it is DeLillo’s epic novel, Underground, which sets the tone for Franzen’s discomforting portrayal of post-Sept. 11 New York: “Then came a freezing Thursday afternoon, a sky of uniform greyness, a light snow that made the downtown skyline’s negative space less negative, blurring the Woolworth building and its fairy-tale turrets, gently slanting in the weather’s tensors down the Hudson and out into the dark Atlantic…”
Reviews of Freedom have characterized it as a key novel for our time. Its dialogue with masterpieces such as The Great Gatsby, American Pastoral and Underground place it in an influential line of American self-examination begun almost a century ago. When you’ve got a good conversation going with such illustrious counterparts, you don’t need Oprah’s Book Club to get the word out.
Norman Ravvin’s new novel is The Joyful Child, from Gaspereau Press. He is Chair of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.