It’s clear that Franzen is one of the best writers in America. From the first few pages, the flow of the narrative lulls you downstream with the understated force of still waters, and as the proverb reminds us, the novel, like still waters, runs deep.
It’s true that the book runs a daunting 600 pages and that most of the pages ar thick walls of text that would preclude any writer with a less proven reputation than Franzen from getting past the first tier of editorial screeners. But, to be fair, literary fiction has never been too concerned with the so-called rules of craft, and ‘show, don’t tel’l is one of the most misconstrued adages of what constitutes good writing.
Instead, Franzen relies on sparing dialog, extensive detailed exposition, and his usually astute observation of the behaviors and motivations of people. His cast of characters toys with the cliche, from the classic rockstar who never outgrows his adolescent selfishness, to an Ayn Rand objectivist teenager who has more luck than gumption, to a jock star athlete and her willowy good natured provider who, Franzen wants us to believe, are a mismatched couple from the start. In truth, Richard Katz, Walter Burglund and Patty and Joey and all of Franzen’s characters reflect far more depth then their archetypal roles. In this respect, Franzen is masterful. Never for a moment did this reader doubt the complex psychological motivations that drove these characters to their respective tragedies.
Nonetheless, the novel is far from perfect, precisely for the same reason that it is good. For example, I could have liked Walter Berglund more. Yes, he is a hard-working middle class good guy, and yes he fights for noble ideals and often takes more blows then he deserves, but in his battle to win people over to his cause, he becomes the caricature of the smug, over-the-top liberal. With his wife and children he often acts as both sanctimonious and hypocritical, with nary a glimpse of introspection when he installs the beautiful Lalitha in his own house, driving his wife Patty to relentless bouts of guilt and depression. Rather, he becomes cruel and vain in the way that all self-appointed victims can be.
Then there is Richard Katz, outliving his rockstar personal charm pretty much as quickly as he becomes the middle aged rebel who hasn’t yet learned to accept that he’s an adult. Neither could I care much for Joey’s cold, self-centered cruelty against the women in his life.
There is also a pungent whiff of sexism throughout the pages of this story. Joey’s girlfriend, for example, gets her way because she is “sort of a professional” at letting Joey do whatever he wants to do with her. He trashes her pride for the most superficial reasons, marrying her, then forcing her to stay home with her parents without revealing that she is his wife, cheating on her, and essentially using her for sex while he tests his luck recklessly with her money. But she gets a pass in the story and ends up with what she most wants in the world, Joey. Her goal is so unambitious and humiliating as to leave me guessing what, exactly, Franzen wanted his readers to feel about Connie’s victory.
Patty was raped as a child, but she’s confused about her priorities in life. Much is made of her gifts as a suburban mother and neighbor, and although she mistakes her sexual attraction for Richard Katz for love, we discover late in the novel that this is only because Patty didn’t get fucked enough, at least not in the right way. If only William would have known that all Patty wanted was to be thrown on the floor and stuck! The only time Patty feels realized is when she’s being dominated sexually. She even declares that rough sex was “What I wanted all my life!”
Then we have Patty’s sisters, Victoria, a depressive yoga hermit whose sole goal in life is not to work, the vain and deluded Abigail who is a failure in every possible respect. Dorothy is the weak mother whose parental failures are abysmal and disturbing, and Joyce is the self-centered politician who would rather hush up her daughter’s rape then compromise her political career. Jessica is a tight-ass moralist who is over romantic and filled with airs of self-importance. Her efforts are fatuous in every way, from her attempts to reconcyle the family to her efforts to make something of her life. She also happens to be the only other female character with ambitions, besides Lalitah, who, of course, not only has the looks of a hot top-billing model but is also genuinely in love with a man twice her age (because that happens all the time). Her ambition, ultimately, ***spoiler alert*** ends up killing her.
So, what are we left with? The reassurance that privileged people will always land on their cat feet, being successful no matter if they spent half their lives sitting on daddy’s or hubby’s money, or actively sabotaging their own success. But there’s a caveat to this moral: women can only be happy when they’re paired up with dominant, rough-sexing, high income-earning men, and only if they know their place, like Connie. Else, if they’re too ambitious, they end up lonely failures like Abigail and Victoria, or they die, like Lalitha.
The “moral” of the story had me so angry it actually kept me up all night. I’m a happy for you, oh regents of the high middle class who know what is best for everyone, happy to know that your lives, according to Franzen, will only temporarily get stuck in the mire of purposelessness. If you even got stuck in the first place, it was only because you didn’t really try. The rest of us have to work really hard at getting somewhere or nowhere, but this is not a concern to Franzen, apparently, whose view of our America seems to be populated with endless trust funds and multi-million dollar deals available even to the most inexperienced of college graduates. I’m a liberal but this was irritatingly condescending even for me.
And in spite of this I cannot bring myself to say that Franzen’s wasn’t a brilliant novel. It was brilliant, and worth the read, and charming, and infuriating, in some ways, just as much as the politics of our current-day America are infuriating. It’s at least worth the discussion you can have with your friends when you land on the last page, whether or not Franzen intended to make us angry, or only to introduce the sad and incontrivertible understanding that only the privilege have access to freedom.