So long, Lalitha

James Lever

  • Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
    Fourth Estate, 562 pp, £20.00, September 2010, ISBN 978 0 00 726975 4

Jonathan Franzen has in the past been a writer who has flourished in sequences and streaks, in set-pieces and sections, the kinds of book of which you could ask: ‘What are your favourite tracks?’ The Corrections’ war of attrition between Caroline and Gary Lambert is a breathtakingly good sequence – but Gary remains the most underpowered character in the novel.

This grumble doesn’t obtain here. Tonally more even, but also more subdued than The Corrections, Freedom is Franzen’s smoothest novel. It is patient, decorous, sure of itself and, in that its author sounds like himself throughout, definingly Franzenesque. Its first 24 pages are technically brilliant. Franzen zooms with gorgeous suppleness between an authorial voice, general gossip and the perspective of a particularly malicious couple called the Paulsens to give us an Updikean neighbourhood view of our protagonists, Walter and Patty Berglund and their children, Joey and Jessica. This is the story from the outside: Walter and Patty, the pioneering gentrifiers of a once down-at-heel street in St Paul, Minnesota, are popular, liberal, but not quite knowable. Their teenage daughter, Jessica, is straightforward; their handsome teenage son, Joey, excessively doted on by his mother, is perversely attracted to the Monaghans, the working-class Republicans next door. The young Monaghan, Connie, ‘a grave and silent little person … like an imaginary friend who happened to be visible’ (one of many great one-liners), loves Joey, and partly because of her and partly to infuriate his liberal parents, Joey moves out and into the Monaghans’ house. This ‘stunning act of sedition’ devastates the Berglunds. They go into a decline, are seen less and less and finally move away to Washington.

The next 160 pages give us the same story from the inside, via an autobiographical fragment composed at Patty’s therapist’s suggestion. Patty is the overlooked eldest child of a wealthy, arty family of Westchester County Democrats, insufficiently creative to attract her parents’ notice. She’s raped at 17; her parents advise her to forget about it and move on. This she does by escaping to college in Minnesota and throwing herself into sport – she’s a talented and highly competitive basketball player. Here she meets the dweeby, good-hearted Walter Berglund and his charismatic best friend Richard Katz, lead singer and guitarist of art-punk band the Traumatics. Richard loves Walter because of his moral seriousness; Walter loves Richard because everyone does, including Patty. She doesn’t get him, settles for Walter, marries him and, 20 years later, has a one-day stand with Richard at the little lakeside house Walter has inherited near Grand Rapids. She remains profoundly attracted to Richard, profoundly guilty about him: the real source of the decline visible to the gossips of St Paul.

Skip two years to 2004. Joey is now married to Connie and involved with some serious Halliburton types, profiteering from the reconstruction of Iraq. The defiantly uncommercial Richard is depressed because the inoffensive nu-folky album (‘Nameless Lake’) he recorded to commemorate his fling with Patty has become a Grammy-nominated smash. Walter has landed a job with a ‘big oil and gas guy’ and close pal of the Cheneys, which allows him to pursue his environmentalist agenda, protecting songbirds and raising consciousness about overpopulation – an issue his now famous old friend can help him with. Richard meets Walter, notes that Walter’s beautiful young Indian assistant, Lalitha, is chastely in love with her boss, further notes the frayed state of the Berglunds’ marriage and tries to scratch his old itch with Patty. She refuses, showing him her autobiographical confession in explanation of her continued loyalty to Walter – and we’re approaching the point where the words SPOILER ALERT might be called for – which Richard, in a clear-the-air spirit, leaves on Walter’s desk. This destroys the Berglunds’ marriage. Walter and Lalitha enjoy a brief idyllic love affair before she’s killed in a car crash. The final two sections are set in 2010, with Walter and Patty still estranged and the reader rooting for their reconciliation.

Beyond the central love triangle, there are two main areas of concern: environmental crisis and the Iraq war – all of them linked by the notion of freedom. But how seriously is that notion interrogated? Immediately before Patty is raped, she gets tipsy for ‘one of the first times ever. She’d been feeling so wonderfully free!’ A motto on the walls of her daughter’s college warns: ‘Use well thy freedom.’ Given the freedom of financial success, Richard cannot compose. Free to pursue their artistic careers, Patty’s creative siblings founder. The freedom of humans to keep cats as pets is contrasted with the freedom of the songbirds the cats prey on, which can only be maintained by restrictions. ‘The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom,’ we’re told of Walter’s immigrant grandfather Einar, ‘is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.’ True enough, but a commonplace. In every corner of the book the motif of freedom lies coiled, but invariably in the context of the boundaries it requires if it’s to be a blessing rather than a curse. It’s a unifying preoccupation but there isn’t much to be said about it. (Disgrace says more about disgrace; Money says more about money.) In one of the novel’s three climaxes, we encounter the aged father of a retina-scorchingly beautiful girl Joey’s hoping to cheat on Connie with. He is ‘the luminary president of a think tank devoted to advocating the unilateral exercise of American military supremacy to make the world freer and safer, especially for America and Israel’. He is given a shrunken skull and ‘exceptionally white teeth’; Franzen goes to some lengths to deny him a name: it is clear we are approaching the heart of darkness. It’s worth quoting his exchange with Joey across a packed dinner table:

‘We have to learn to be comfortable with stretching some facts,’ he said with his smile, to an uncle who had mildly challenged him about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities. ‘Our modern media are very blurry shadows on the wall and the philosopher has to be prepared to manipulate these shadows in the service of a greater truth.’

‘But how do you know it’s the truth?’ [Joey] called out.

All heads turned to him, and his heart began to pound.

‘We never know for certain,’ Jenna’s father said, doing his smile thing … ‘But … our understanding of the world, based on decades of careful empirical study by the very best minds, is in striking accordance with the inductive principle of universal human freedom … I’m guessing you’ve already had the experience of being frustrated with people who aren’t as bright as you are. People who are not only unable but unwilling to admit certain truths whose logic is self-evident to you. Who don’t even seem to care that their logic is bad.’

‘But that’s because they’re free,’ Joey said. ‘Isn’t that what freedom is for? The right to think whatever you want? I mean, I admit, it’s a pain in the ass sometimes.’

Around the table, people chuckled at this.

  ‘That’s exactly right,’ Jenna’s father said. ‘Freedom is a pain in the ass. And that’s precisely why it’s imperative that we … get a nation of free people to let go of their bad logic and sign on with better logic, by whatever means are necessary.’

The spookily unnamed skull-headed old man with the deceptive orthodonture, purring jerry-built fallacies over chuckles, is the centre of the Iraq strand of the novel, and at the heart of Joey’s story (the old man, impressed with Joey’s brains, gets him a summer job which leads to his involvement with corrupt Iraqi reconstruction contracts). It may be a consolation to some readers to think that Tony Blair, for instance, would admit to ‘stretching facts’ or reveal in private his contempt for the freedom he pays lip service to, but the scene is a fantasy, and, worse, it is also exactly the least surprising thing that could have happened at that table. But this is a continuously unsurprising novel. Does the beautiful daughter, Jenna, break with type and blossom into a serious rival to the winning Connie? No, she remains a two-dimensional materialistic airhead, whom Joey and the reader are able to walk out on without a second glance – thank goodness. What about the couple Richard meets on the train whose ‘extreme white … T-shirts seemed to him the colour of the Bush regime’? What will they be like? They throw litter on him (exercising their freedom) and hang around for a hundred-word cameo of irrational obnoxiousness before vanishing. Why do Patty’s parents not press charges against her rapist? Because his parents are local political bigwigs. And so on.

Franzen should be too good a writer not to chafe more against his own weakness for the schematic. Strong Motion (1992), a novel whose own central metaphor – earthquakes – is pressed into some pretty strenuous work (sex scenes rendered with seismic similes, a timely tremor at the book’s climax), features this comparison between his two children addressed by the protagonist’s father to his son:

I tend to think of you and Eileen as sort of the two sides of the national equation. Eileen being the sort of person who thinks she needs wealth and luxury, and you being the kind of person who … says hell no, beans and rice are fine.

And, yes, they are opposites, just as the protagonist’s insanely materialist mother and Marxist father are. Franzen’s work values these schema: it belongs to an Upton Sinclair tradition where a neat knot of ironies summing up the interconnections of the capitalist system is considered an ideal plot. Thus, the oil and gas man who wants to establish a refuge for a threatened songbird turns out to have a corporate partner in the shady defence contractors LBI, the company Joey has been supplying equipment for and making huge quasi-legal profits in the process. In order to relocate people from the land earmarked for the songbird reserve, LBI provide them with jobs-for-life making body armour: so the songbird’s freedom from attack is guaranteed by America’s persistent attempts to impose ‘freedom’ on the rest of the world. Walter’s disgust at LBI forces the oil and gas man to remove funding for Walter’s awareness-raising overpopulation body, whereupon a contrite Joey donates his LBI gains to his father’s campaign. It’s clever plotting, and one is always grateful to be in the company of a novelist so largely clued up about business and government, but it’s also diagrammatic: it’s back-of-an-envelope stuff (‘I can construct a plot in an afternoon,’ Franzen has said), conceived on a different plane from the characters, and too rigid to respond to them.

The difficulty with the environment as a theme for the novelist is to state the despair-engendering facts without being silenced by the despair or hectoring the reader. In practice, this often means creating characters who share their author’s views but who are a degree more naive, thus allowing their utopianism (and rage) to be stated but ironised. This is dangerous territory, but it will be clear to anyone who has read Franzen’s essay ‘My Bird Problem’ in The Discomfort Zone that Walter’s agony about songbirds is shared, passionately, by his author. However, when Walter rages against the fragmentation of bird habitat to Richard, this is Richard’s response: ‘In hindsight, he supposed it was inevitable that his friend would become one of those people who carried around laminated literature. But he was still surprised by what an angry crank Walter had become in the last two years.’

Richard spent his college years and after talking hard left politics with Walter. He is cynical about the effectiveness of political action but a hardcore anti-consumerist who knows exactly where Walter’s coming from. Despite this he has to dismiss Walter as a crank here in case we should think the author is too readily identifying with a character who’s just delivered eight pages of exposition on the songbirds’ situation. The sentence ‘he was surprised by what a crank Walter had become in the last two years’ wouldn’t make any sense – Walter’s scarcely any more ‘cranky’ than he was before, and his lecture on birds is impassioned but perfectly sane. So the italicised ‘angry’ – which means that Richard already thinks of Walter as a crank – is there to disguise the fact that Franzen is cutting his alter ego loose, or letting him swing. There’s a loss of courage in this, a taking of the safe option. It’s the character who’s full of a passionate intensity, and the novelist who lacks all conviction. And the climax to the whole strand, once the oil and gas man has unsurprisingly double-crossed Walter, is as well-worn as the wicked old Hawk at the dinner table: addressing the workers at the opening of the body armour plant, a sleeping-pill-addled Walter gets to make a superarticulate speech which lets LBI and the human race have it with both barrels, saying all the unsayable things that the book wishes it had the indecorum to say itself before he is wrestled off the mike. You may have seen this movie before.

These are the main issues of public life which Freedom addresses: they’re the subplots. What of the main plot, of the private lives of Walter and Patty and Richard? One could start with the first words that follow the thrilling opening: the title of Patty’s autobiography. It’s called ‘Mistakes Were Made’ (a reference to the weaselly ‘past exonerative’ tense popularised by Richard Perle and George W. Bush among others), which fits the scheme, but doesn’t wholly convince. Franzen has gone for the thematically resonant joke at the expense of the character. Would Patty really title her cri de coeur, which doesn’t attempt in any way to dodge responsibility for her mistakes, with such a sly reference? (This is the Franzen style, to hammer away at the consonances between private and public life. Walter, who worries about the toxic coal byproducts generated by his deal with Dick and Lynne’s friend, ‘was frightened by the long-term toxicity they were creating with their fights. He could feel it pooling in their marriage like the coal-sludge ponds in Appalachian valleys.’) But one soon realises that Patty’s autobiography isn’t written by her. It’s composed not in a distinct Patty Berglund voice but in the familiar lucid cadences of the 2001 National Book Award winner, with the dial turned down half a notch. This early decision may keep the novel’s fluency high but it is fatally limiting: it imposes a ceiling on the reality of what we’re reading; a pane of glass that should have been removed has been locked in place. The contagion of this decision spreads into other sections of the book; how much more interesting things might have got when Richard and Walter read the autobiography if there had been a chance of their misreading it, if a shortfall in Patty’s powers of self-expression had created ambiguities, or if the text had had blind spots invisible to her but not her readers.

And Patty needs this extra dimension, because, despite all of Franzen’s sedulous work in constructing her, after a certain point she (like the others) simply refuses to get any deeper. By the end of her autobiography, around page 190, we know all we’ll ever know about the principals and they have exhausted their capacity to surprise. Their psychology in relation to each other makes perfect sense, and the more Franzen amplifies their respective situations the more you admire his accuracy and consistency (‘Yes, that figures,’ you keep assenting. ‘That fits’), but around a third of the way into the novel, they cease to grow. The culprit is the busy plot, which cannot support the sort of knight’s-move divagation or apparent dead-end realism thrives on, and which is too much of a bully to adapt to the novel’s own shifting needs. When Walter kicks Patty out, he is free to pursue an affair with the beautiful and pretty much perfect 27-year-old Lalitha. The affair, built on Lalitha’s avid sexual hunger for Walter’s ‘egregious, middle-aged’ 47-year-old body, is quite cloudless (‘The woman he loved loved him. He knew this for certain’). This raises a problem for the book, which is bent on being about Walter and Patty: Lalitha must be got out of the way. This is exactly where the characters have a chance to deepen (Lalitha’s growing discontent with the age-gap worming away at their contentment; Walter’s cell-deep connection with Patty perversely recrudescing) but instead – a tidily mysterious car crash. So long, Lalitha: it was cleaner this way. So now Walter has been given a) the necessary symmetry with Patty’s lost love and b) a reason to be cast into precisely the type of long despair in which never calling his estranged wife will seem ‘epic’ rather than petty. Furthermore, because Lalitha is one of those perfect and therefore cursory characters, she doesn’t rival Patty in the reader’s affections. The plot is running the show, and reality is lying somewhere in a mangled hire-car at the bottom of an embankment in West Virginia.

And there is such a lot of plot to get through, all told in a restrained sober prose at a steady tempo which aspires to the dispassionate, objective rhythm of Tolstoy, but which in reality becomes a little too leisurely as the beat of the book gets steadily more soapy:

All fall, he’d been stressing about where to stay during his Christmas vacation, since his two competing homes in St Paul disqualified each other, and since three weeks was far too long to impose on the family of a new college friend. He’d vaguely planned on staying with one of his better high-school friends, which would have positioned him to pay separate visits to his parents and the Monaghans, but it turned out that Abigail was going to Avignon for the holidays to attend an international miming workshop and …

There are long tracts of this kind of housekeeping, and when it needs a jolt, Franzen reaches too readily for the chapter-ending shock phone-call or email. The overall effect is of TV: a pleasantly classy mini-series, taking its time, with mild cliffhangers. And the love triangle itself is a little low on invention: Patty is presented as a Natasha Rostov, faced with a choice between the square and the cool. But Richard is no Prince Andrei. He is fantastically good-looking, extremely well-endowed, an exceptional lover, acerbic, droll, self-knowing, misogynistic (in that cool, attractive, way girls can’t resist), a great musical talent (as the lead singer of the sort of band American novelists of a certain age go for), lapidary about the emptiness of the music business, given to replying to questions like ‘What were you doing in Florida?’ with lines like ‘South American chick I mistook for a human being’ and, helpfully for the plot, pathologically commitment-phobic: he is in short a cliché and a bore, whose very name is a heavy-handed echo of the predatory cats Walter despises, and the ironies of the triangle shrivel to that eternal dilemma: rock god or husband?

Having separated, can the Berglunds be reconciled, six years on? ‘I believe in laughter,’ Franzen informed the Globe and Mail during the publicity for Freedom. ‘There’s so much to be upset about in the world, I feel an obligation from time to time to have the final note in a book not be a despairing one.’ This is a little disingenuous: all of Franzen’s books, with a sad note here or there, end happily, and it’s the impossibility of imagining an unhappy end to Freedom that has such a deadening effect on the book’s final third. Wearily, I must now reiterate a somewhat otiose SPOILER ALERT. After six years of complete silence between them, Patty comes to see Walter, who is now living a hermit-like existence at the lakeside house. Wordlessly, she curls up on his porch, in the chill October air, until hypothermia begins to set in. Can Walter surmount his foolish pride? He gazes into her eyes and lets her

see all the vileness inside him, all the hatreds of two thousand solitary nights, while the two of them were still in touch with the void in which the sum of everything they’d ever said or done, every pain they’d inflicted, every joy they’d shared, would weigh less than the smallest feather on the wind.

‘It’s me,’ she said. ‘Just me.’

  ‘I know,’ he said, and kissed her.

End para, double-space. Isn’t that just how it should have gone between Frédéric Moreau and Madame Arnoux? It’s the ending that Freedom deserves, since the book is, among other things, possibly the most lachrymose novel of modern times. There are, in its 560 pages, 26 separate instances of weeping, not counting the many blinked-back tears or suppressed sobs or ‘Tiny pearls of tear … clinging to her eyelashes’ (a formulation so heartfelt it is recycled from page 421 of The Corrections). Meanwhile the final results for our ensemble have come in: Republican go-getter Joey has seen the error of his ways and become an importer of ethically grown coffee. Jessica is a junior editor at a literary publishing house in Manhattan, excited to be publishing ‘an earnest young novelist’. Patty’s rotten sister Abigail has become a successful art-clown in Italy. Patty’s less rotten sister Veronica is an unappreciated but possibly genius-level painter. Patty works with kids; Walter, one supposes, with birds. Richard, ‘busy and successful’, has just completed ‘one of those avant-garde orchestral thingies for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’ and is currently working on scores for art-house movies. And pretty much everyone lives in New York. Now, that’s how life oughta be! At last the question ‘How to live?’, posed throughout the novel, has been answered: we should live like they do in Hannah and Her Sisters. It’s around now that it may dawn on the reader that Freedom has more in common with Richard’s country-tinged, Grammy-nominated middlebrow hit record than Franzen might have intended. This book is ‘Nameless Lake’.

Of course there are many fine sequences here, like the beautiful opening, or Walter’s Rothian memory of making candy as a child, but nothing to match the war between Caroline and Gary Lambert. And while the prose offers punctual delight, there are few laughs, though there are many in his non-fiction – and not one sentence, I think, to touch this description of a photograph in the author’s late mother’s house, from The Discomfort Zone: ‘The Alaskan picture was so flattering to nine of us that she’d applied a blue ballpoint pen to the eyes of the tenth, a daughter-in-law, who’d blinked for the photo and who now, with her misshapen ink-dot eyes, looked quietly monstrous or insane.’

Franzen is a novelist whose primary technique is aggregation; he piles on the pages and incidents in the steady hope that the text is deepening. It’s possible that the sheer length of Freedom, the cruising chug of its smooth unshiftable soapy rhythm, is the main reason the novel is so disappointing. After four 500-page-plus books (and no short stories) it might be fascinating to see what he would do with, what might be exposed by, a shorter form – it could free him up.