I’m not sure if I agree with the claim in Judith Shulevitz’s very good and very smart review of Freedom in Slate that Patty Berglund is one of Jonathan Franzen’s two best characters, along with Alfred Lambert of The Corrections, but I do think she is well within the top five and deceptively interesting.
Shulevitz chalks a big part of the novel’s success to Patty’s characterization and the strength of her voice in the sections that she narrates:
It is there that Patty, one of Franzen’s two best characters (the other is Alfred in The Corrections), roars to life. Patty is utterly vibrant, sharply sarcastic, unforgettably funny, a mother tigress who can be impossible and can’t help being self-involved but who is always fierce. Once we hear her voice, we realize that Patty—her adolescent outrage at the unfairness of everything, her breathless disbelief that people can be like that, her inability not to ridicule everything ever so slightly, and yet, at the same time, her burgeoning self-awareness and kindness and sharp regret—is the force that gives life to the novel. You might even say that it comes to life to the extent that her voice is audible in it. … Franzen’s weakness for the flashy aperçu has sometimes smothered the inner lives of his characters. But there is nothing showy about Patty’s voice, and he inhabits her fully.
To be clear: Patty’s no saint. She’s just remarkably layered.
Indeed, the “Mistakes Were Made” sections of the novel brought Patty forward as a real person, something deeper than the acidly portrayed insane gentrifying mother of the first section of Freedom and defiant of stereotypes. I’ve read other reviews—including Sam Anderson’s—that actually make the opposite claim: that the section supposedly narrated by Patty don’t sound right at all: “One-third
Continue reading “Mistakes Were Made”—Freedom’s Patty Berglund
In some ways, the content of Freedom came as a surprise to me. I knew, between The Discomfort Zone and magazine interviews, that Jonathan Franzen was big into bird watching. I also knew that he was not so into TVs, consumerism, and all that jazz, from the same interviews, his novels, and the essays of How to Be Alone. But I wasn’t prepared for a novel so overtly political, or so overtly post-9/11. (I should say superficially, rather than overtly, but I’ll get to that below.) And forcing the characters, despite their sometimes radical leanings, to address the world almost entirely in contemporary American Democrat vs. Republican terms, made for a frustrating reading experience that seemed more concerned with current affairs than any wider moral issues. And as Mark Athitakis describes on his blog, “it’s a novel with that persistent, irritating drumbeat in the background—technological consumerism is an infernal machine”—and it is irritating.
But back to that “superficially” above. Much of the plot may revolve around politics, especially as a means to keep the action rolling along, but the heart of the novel is really in the home. This, along with many other features of the plot, makes the novel seem, as Sam Anderson notes in New York magazine, “from a distance” much like The Corrections. His rundown of the parallels is about what I came up with:
Freedom is a close cousin to The Corrections: a social-realist epic about a depressive, entropic midwestern family being swallowed and digested by the insatiable anaconda of modernity. The Corrections told the story of the Lamberts—Arthur and Enid and their three children. Freedom tells the story of the Berglunds—Walter and Patty and their two children. Instead of St. Jude (a proxy for St. Louis) we have St. Paul. Instead of
Continue reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Check out the following passage from Shoplifting from American Apparel‘s opening Gmail chat conversation between Sam and Luis:
“When Marissa and I fight we lay on our sides for an hour in different rooms and wait for the person that was mean to come into the room and say they are sorry, then we existentially attack each other in very quiet voices,” said Luis.
Jonathan Franzen, hip but unhip enough that he was forced to reveal to the handlers of the State of New York that he did not live in Brooklyn, wrote in his 2006 memoir The Discomfort Zone:
We reacted to minor fights at breakfast by lying facedown on the floor of our respective rooms for hours at a time, waiting for acknowledgment of our pain.
Actually, re-reading this passage in the Franzen book, which I remembered only imperfectly, brings up more similarities. Franzen and his wife are losing it after spending too much time isolated together; Sam and Luis talk about how they “go inside ourselves, and play around inside our own mental illness.” And both are really hard to read, and that sure isn’t because I’m not sympathizing.
Thinking about regional literature the other day, I turned once more to State by State, “featuring original writing on all fifty states” and edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey. I don’t know how I managed to not read the entry on New York before—a state I know well, and by Jonathan Franzen, whom I like—but I have now, and I was surprised at how much I liked it. (You know how you never like things you actually know about. Plus, Franzen is totally from St. Louis.) So, a post in honor of the fact I’m headed there tonight.
At first I thought the conceit of the entry was a bit much: Franzen pretends he’s gone for an interview of the State, and gets bounced around by her publicist, who gets worried that he’s working for a small press; her personal attorney, who warns him not to mention the late seventies or early eighties; and a historian, who gives him a lot of interesting info but gets kind of…wrapped up in it. It’s when he’s rescued by a geologist that things get good. He’s interested enough for Franzen to confide in about his first New York experiences, notably a day spent in the City with his older cousin, and the drive back to Westport, CT late at night.
JF: And over the Whitestone Bridge we went. And that’s when I had the clinching vision. That’s when I fell irretrievably for New York: when I saw Co-Op City late at night.
The New York State Geologist: Get outta here.
JF: Seriously. I’d already spent the day in Manhattan. I’d already seen the biggest and most city-like city in the world. And now we’d been driving away from it for fifteen or twenty minutes, which in St. Louis would have
Continue reading State by State: New York
I’ve been flipping through Jonathan Franzen’s collection of essays, How To Be Alone, and I’m really enjoying them. I like Franzen a lot so that’s not a surprise. “The Reader in Exile” was the first one I checked out—yes, because the word “reader” is in the title; the second one I read was “Books in Bed” which is not about what I thought it would be—and it was really surprisingly smart. You see, it was written in 1995, and it’s all about how the internets are going to make us too stupid to read. Or not, because Franzen isn’t that silly.
He discusses a few things, including the then-impossibly-hip Wired magazine, and the book The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts. I haven’t read that book, and based on this I don’t think I ever will, but I’m so impressed with what a cool and thought-out take Franzen had on the whole business. On Birkerts:
His nightmare, to be sure, “is not one of neotroglodytes grunting and wielding clubs, but of efficient and prosperous information managers living in the shallows of what it means to be human and not knowing the difference.”…Instead of a soul, membership in a crowd. … It’s no accident that Birkerts locates apocalypse in the arch-hip pages of Wired. He’s still the high-school loner, excluded from the in crowd and driven, therefore, to the alternative and more “genuine” satisfactions of reading. But what, we might ask him, is so wrong with being an efficient and propserous information manager? Do the team captains and class presidents really not have souls?
It’s funny; I could not agree more with Franzen here. Which I think is probably unusual for a “reader”—of course he is one too. But he’s right to call out the elitism here, which is mostly baseless and
Continue reading “The Reader in Exile” by Jonathan Franzen