Make of it what you will, but the Twitter-born fracas over Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom proves one thing without a doubt: The American literary establishment are size queens.
Their collective pulse races at the sight of a muscular doorstopper filled with realism. (Especially following a 10-year dry spell.) They can’t agree on large sales versus long shelf life. They’re critical heavy-breathers: witness The New York Times Book Review Editor Sam Tanenhaus fervently laud Freedom’s “capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life.”
And why, it simply asks, do women writers never get Time covers? It’s a question worth answering on its own terms, but if we keep the wrong turns of Freedom’s principles in mind, we should get honest about it ASAP.
But, like a teenage boy choosing his first set of Trojans, the establishment agonizes most over the touchiest of size issues: coverage. And that’s why a lone tweet from New York Times bestseller Jodi Picoult—“ Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings”—shifted the debate from whether, as Tanenhaus asserts, the novel is “ a masterpiece of American fiction” to whether it deserves any notice at all.
It’s hard to pity an author so well-endowed he can brush off Oprah and be deemed vacay-worthy by our president, but at this stage in the media onslaught, even the biggest Franzenfreudian has to feel an actual pang for the guy.
Up until Picoult’s tweet, Franzen, who recently graced the cover of Time magazine, simply had to ponder which New York Times’ critic would prevail. Would it be Michiko, slugging down another “limn” for the road, gunning adjectival with “sharp-elbowed, apocalyptic satirist” and “prose both visceral and lapidary”? Or would it be Tanenhaus, wielding a battery of fawning yet morphically bewildering analogies, like “Franzen cracked open the opaque shell of postmodernism, tweezed out its tangled circuitry and inserted in its place the warm, beating heart of an authentic humanism”?
Critics bowled over into near-incoherence: praise in itself. But, suddenly, the debate was about the New York Times—specifically, its coverage of novels by women. Novelist and Twitterist Jennifer Weiner jumped in with the hashtag #franzenfreude in search of worthy ladies’ fiction, and chin-stroking page views multiplied, cannibalizing critical coverage. So far, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, The Forward, The Guardian, NPR, and even the NYT itself have weighed in on whether women are getting jacked. It’s one of those maddening debates in which everyone fundamentally agrees, yet feels compelled to add some infinitely more nuanced assessment. Yes, all good books should receive serious critical attention. But what does “good” really mean? Meanwhile, valuable moments in which someone could be chiming in with another “lapidary” are ticking away.
But a smart Franzen will weather this storm with a healthy dose of Ironical Zen. Because Freedom itself is about how, despite our best efforts, we have very little power to control the story—not only of our book launches, but of our lives.
Critics besides Kakutani and Tanenhaus have had a hard time—not “authorial pawns subject to simple Freudian-Darwinian imperatives” or “crystalline instances of precise notation shaped by imaginative sympathy” hard, but hard—getting to the nub of the novel’s particulars. This is not surprising, since Freedom effortlessly runs on parallel tracks. At its most elemental, it’s the story of Patty and Walter Berglund, who meet in college when basketball star Patty is felled by an opponent and finds herself helpless against Walter’s ministrations. (Spoilers incoming.)
After they marry, Patty is tormented by two men. First, Walter’s best friend Richard, a self-satisfied bad boy whose attraction does not desist despite 20 years of marriage and an obsessive, mutually unsatisfying affair. Second, by her adored son Joey, who punishes his oversharing mother by moving next door with his girlfriend’s family before finishing high school.
So much for the plot, which both crisscrosses and runs alongside, some stories lingering in stations while others hurtle by, a veritable network of mini-narratives. As advertised, these provide a genuinely virtuoso portrait of our culture. Pace Tanenhaus, Franzen may not index quite “every fresh datum of our shared millennial life”—but he’s particularly wicked on the insufferableness of what we can call, for lack of a better phrase, white folks’ problems. On the neighborhood Patty and Walter help gentrify, Franzen writes:
“The collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn…like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job…There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? … And was it true you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts okay politically? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood…Was it impossible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy brilliant kids while working full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning?”
Franzen is equally adept at chronicling the intricacies of the Berglund’s neighbors, whose public and private faces are entirely at odds. In a typical gloss, of Patty’s popularity in the neighborhood, Franzen explains, “There were people with whom her style of self-deprecation didn’t sit well—who detected a kind of condescension in it, as if Patty, in exaggerating her own minor defects, were too obviously trying to spare the feelings of less accomplished homemakers.”
This is all prelude, however, to the interior disjunction of Freedom’s leads, who are, to a one, frequently undone by how poorly their public selves match their private desires. This mutable conflict is summed up best by Walter as he contemplates an affair with his assistant: “He didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know how to live. Each new thing he encountered in life impelled him in a direction that fully convinced him of its rightness, but then the next new thing loomed up and impelled him in the opposite direction, which also felt right. There was no controlling narrative: he seemed to himself a purely reactive pinball in a game whose only object was to stay alive for staying alive’s sake.”
Thus, Walter, in the midst of an affair and campaign against population growth, finds he wants to have a child with his beloved. Joey, while chasing the exquisite older sister of his roommate, finds himself ludicrously committed to his unflappable first love, Connie. Patty, after a lifetime of dissatisfaction with Walter and her status as a homemaker, finds herself fulfilled by working in a nursery school, and happily back with her scorned husband, while Richard, after eschewing his rock-star status, becomes a famously prolific musical crank, never quite deciding if Patty is the lost love of his life or an incalculable betrayal of his best friend.
These are people defined not by their public selves but by the pettiness, chaos, and squalor of their interior ones. Sure, the novel takes us everywhere—from trips to buy rusty munitions in Paraguay, to music-festival campaigns against population explosion around the country, to mountaintop clearing to create bird sanctuaries, to unsatisfying artistic careers in Brooklyn—generally signs a novelist has lost the thread.
But these forays are purely incidental, as if Franzen spun a globe with no particular goal in mind. For instance, Joey’s trip to Paraguay to buy rusty munitions isn’t important because it’s about Iraq. It’s important because that’s where he digs through his own shit to find the wedding ring he’s inadvertently swallowed before the flight, on a trip where he plans and abandons a sleazy affair. It’s an apt metaphor: in Freedom, Joey and each character seek only the slim circlet of truth hidden in their own moral waste.
So while it’s probably annoying to Franzen that his novel’s launch has been occluded, yet again, by an unrelated media frenzy, it’s also refreshing. Freedom’s characters also found their interior motivations revealed at odd, inappropriate moments. The cultural tsunami provoked by Franzen’s Time magazine cover, too, has apparently been lying in wait for some time.
And why, it simply asks, do women writers never get Time covers? It’s a question worth answering on its own terms, but if we keep the wrong turns of Freedom’s principles in mind, we should get honest about it ASAP. Because while the debate is ostensibly about the size of critical attention Franzen deserves, asking the question alone has already quite successfully changed the subject. Looking at these results, one could arrive at a slightly more dangerous conclusion. Size be damned, it says. In a pinch, ladies will always find some way to get ours.
Lizzie Skurnick is the author of Shelf Discovery, a memoir of teen reading. She lives in Jersey City.