“Mistakes Were Made”—Freedom’s Patty Berglund

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 of the novel is supposed to have been written by Patty as a therapist-inspired autobiography, but Franzen never establishes a textual voice for her that’s different enough from his own; she sounds more like a brilliant novelist than a former jock, housewife, and Starbucks barista.” Mark Athitakis similarly notes that her narrative consists of “pages written in an expert style that recalls a certain American novelist named Jonathan Franzen. Later, people will comment on how well-written those pages are.”

If Patty’s voice sounds a bit like Franzen’s, it doesn’t sound like Franzen’s voice in the rest of this novel—which Shulevitz has some other ideas about. After the first section of the book, which catalogues the Berglunds’ life in St. Paul with little that could be called affection, Patty’s voice is a bit of a surprise. She’s not quite mentally healthy, but she’s not nuts, or nasty, or a drunk, or evil. She’s owning up to her mistakes even as she can’t help but keep making them. She’s not the brainless jock you might guess from her all-star basketball career; she’s an articulate woman who can analyze her relationship with team sports and how brainless she actually was at the time when she let basketball fill her life and her head. She has few illusions about her marriage but she cares desperately for her husband and her children. And there is textual evidence outside her own narrative that she is interesting and more than what she seems; that’s what Richard Katz always seems to think after all.

Since I do think the credibility of Patty’s autobiography as narrative is probably important to the success or failure of the novel as a novel, I find it interesting that it’s something up for disagreement in much of what I’ve read on the novel so far—which is admittedly little. But Patty got to me in a way I didn’t expect a post-jock young married urban gentry mom to ever get to me, and I don’t think that would have happened without giving her a strong, verisimilar voice all her own.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

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 a dubious get-rich-quick scheme exploiting the post-Soviet chaos in Lithuania, we have a dubious get-rich-quick scheme exploiting the war in Iraq. Like its predecessor, Freedom is heavy on psychology and extramarital affairs and earnest speechifying (capitalism, overpopulation, Israel). It is, in other words, classic Precambrian Franzen: a ready-made literary fossil. It’s hard not to be at least a little preemptively bored.

“Precambrian Franzen” in the sense that all Franzen is Precambrian, according to the argument that the social realist novel is dead (hence my irritation above, I suppose) and that this kind of domestic fiction has lost its place in the literary world and been relegated to chick-lit status (when written by women). I haven’t got much comment on that whole debate, as these days I don’t feel I know much about the contemporary American novel. But anyway.

As Anderson notes, what makes Freedom ultimately different from The Corrections is that the novels are “populated by different people”—an important distinction in Franzenworld, where characterization is extremely strong and the decades spent telling the story of the Berglund family backwards and forwards through time, with an all but omniscient narrator shadowing each character and two long sections written by the family matriarch herself, make for very precise and three-dimensional people walking around the novel. And I don’t mean three-dimensional in the sense of “round” vs. “flat,” but in the sense that they actually seem like humans that could get up and walk away—again, the words of Anderson are better than mine: Franzen’s skill “trick[s] us into beliving that a text-generated set of neural patterns, a purely abstract mind-event, is in fact a tangible human being that we can love, pity, hate, admire, and possibly even run into someday at the grocery store.” And the ages of both main generations of the Berglunds (both parents and children are younger, in real terms as well as within the narrative, than the Lamberts) happened to be more personally interesting to me.

It is this dense rendering of character—to paraphrase Anderson one last time—that gave such strength to The Corrections as well. Yes, the overarching ideas of modernity and the human family, yes. But nine years later, what do I remember more clearly than the pain of Gary and the awful, almost evil frustrations of dealing with his wife? The complete picture of Denise, possibly the weakest of the Lambert siblings, turning into a serious chef? Or Chip, the sheep so black and sheepish he finds himself accidentally “forced” to steal super-expensive salmon from a super-expensive boutique market by stuffing it down his shirt? Or was it his pants? Either way.

In Freedom it is not any sort of political message that comes out on top, but an endless string of interpersonal ones that are from beginning to end more important. The politics of the novel is dominated in its origins by family: Walter becomes the way he does about nature conservancy because of his depressed father and his marital problems; Joey turns against the family and becomes Republican because his rebellion against his parents pushed him into the arms of Republican-leaning neighbors; Patty even comes to understand late in life that her own mother was somewhat driven into politics to get away from her family, rather than the reverse.

The title of “Mistakes Were Made,” Patty’s therapy-induced autobiography, may be a dig at political events, and plenty such “mistakes were made” in the novel as well—Walter’s meltdown and Joey’s deal with the military-industrial devil, for example. But her autobiography itself is dominated by mistakes of a very different sort: mistakes with her parents and siblings, mistakes dealing with her rape, mistakes with her college friends, mistakes with men, mistakes with her children.

And those kinds of mistakes, on the part of everyone—because we all make them—are more intense psychologically than any of the environmentalism or anti-populism or anything about the Iraq War. Franzen paints the inside of a relationship so thickly and also so starkly that it’s hard not to be afraid of whatever parallels there may be to the reader’s life; most of these people are really unhappy and you do not want to do whatever they did to get here.

Politics can get you a few things—a well-attended funeral, immunity from prosecution, even an ultra-lucrative military contract—but it will also take you away from your family, sour your personal relationships, and even get you killed. By the last section of the book, “Canterbridge Estates Lake,” Walter has left family life almost entirely behind to reach his fullest crank potential. Echoing an earlier time in the novel when Patty lost it over Joey and sociopathically slashed the neighbor’s tires, he traps the neighbor’s bird-hunting pet cat and brings it to an animal shelter hours away to be euthanized. But family can bring him back from the brink of that level of misanthropy and dysfunction, smooth over relations with other humans, and make it possible for Walter to live in society again.

Speaking of family, Walter’s grandfather is the one who immigrated to America, from Sweden. As the narrator explains,

[h]e became another data point in the American experiment of self-government, an experiment statistically skewed from the outset, because it wasn’t the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn’t get along well with others.

It may sound like something a crank would say, but in Franzenworld it is true. No one “gets along well with others” in the larger sense, but sometimes certain people get along with certain other people, or force themselves to, because they have to, for the family or the “team.” To perhaps bring further home that chick lit point above, many of those peacemakers are women: Patty, Jessica, Lalitha, Connie, Dorothy. But men unquestionably have a role as well, such as in Joey’s little incident with his wedding ring and his larger decision to truly be with Connie, or Walter, when he negates his anti-overpopulation principles once with Patty and then wishes to again later with Lalitha. For all his commitment to politics and the vehemence he feels for his cause, he still literally “couldn’t stop imagining making Lalitha big with child. It was at the root of all their fucking, it was the meaning encoded in how beautiful he found her body.”

So, so much for changing hearts and minds, then, and we are what we are? Mistakes were made, and will be made, and we will forgive each other because we must and get along with each other just as far as we must because we must? There is a place in this world for cranks and angry political causes but ultimately life is much quieter than that, though still as intense? Social realism and domestic fiction are not at all dead? Perhaps. That is part of what I will leave with, at least. There’s a lot, lot more though, and I hardly need to note that it’s all carried off in Franzen’s super-assured sentences, which style, I think, may even have improved since the corrections, gotten a bit more mature.

Sympathizing with people cooler than you, multigenerational edition

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.

State by State: New York

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 been enough to get you out into pitch-dark river-bottom cornfields, and suddenly, as far as I could see, there were these huge towers of habitation, and every single one of them was as tall as the tallest building in St. Louis, and there were more of them than I could count. The most distant ones were over by the water and otherworldly in the haze. Tens of thousands of city lives all stacked and packed against each other. The sheer number of apartments that you could see out here in the southeast Bronx: it all seemed unknowably and excitingly vast, the way my own future seemed to me at that moment, with Martha sitting next to me doing seventy.

Shit, Jonathan Franzen, you so get it. He’s killing me:

There’s a particular connection between the Midwest and New York. …New York’s like the beady eye of yang at the center of the Midwest’s unentitled, self-effacing plains of yin. And the Midwest is like the dewy, romantic, hopeful eye of yin at the center of New York’s brutal, grasping yang. A certain kind of Midwesterner comes east to be completed. Just as a certain kind of New York native goes to the Midwest to be renewed.

The interview format turns out to be perfect. Franzen can use the state geologist as his confessor, and get these people to tell him a bunch of facts, and get some of them to oppose him, to show the bits of New York he doesn’t really like. Including the State herself, who thinks Donald Trump is cute, and wisely tells Franzen, “It was always about money. You were just too young to notice.”

“The Reader in Exile” by Jonathan Franzen

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 also bizarre—“an aristocracy of alienation.” I mean shit, I love books, I love reading, I love what it brings me. But I know better than to assume other people are soulless. And more importantly, I don’t think there’s anything inherently better about reading just-any-book than about playing online or watching TV or movies, both of which have some pretty incredible writing these days.

On to Franzen’s last point, which I also loved. After the aesthetic elitism, Birkerts moves on to the idea “that while technology is merely palliative, art is therapeutic.” Franzen likes this idea, but knows better. I quote at length, because I say, “Right on!”

Unhappy families may be aesthetically superior to happy families, whose happiness is all alike, but “dysfunctional” families are not. It was easy to defend a novel about unhappiness; everybody knows unhappiness; it’s part of the human condition. A novel about emotional dysfunction, however, is reduced to a Manichaeanism of utility. Either it’s a sinister enabler, obstructing health by celebrating pathology, or it’s an object lesson, helping readers to understand and overcome their own dysfunction. Obsession with social health produces a similar vulgarity: if a novel isn’t part of a political solution, it must be part of the problem. The doctoral candidate who “exposes” Joseph Conrad as a colonialist is akin to the school board that exiles Holden Caulfield as a poor role model—akin as well, unfortunately, to Birkerts, whose urgency in defending reading devolves from the assumption that books must somehow “serve” us.

I love novels as much as Birkerts does, and I, too, have felt rescued by them. I’m moved by this pleading, as a lobbyist in the cause of literature, for the intellectual subsidy of his client. But novelists want their work to be enjoyed, not taken as medicine.

And again, this was in 1995. Fourteen years later there are still people worrying about those soulless neotroglodytes. I think we’re okay.