TIME Magazine really wanted Jonathan Franzen to be the Next Great American Author. I wanted to buy into it, too, before I had read any of his books. As you can imagine, that set me up for disappointment. Franzen is a vibrant, skilled author and, as he will admit, not quite on par with the virtuoso that was David Foster Wallace. All overhype aside, what he did with The Corrections and Freedom was important. For prose to shine, we imagine that it has to deal with themes of a similar ilk. For instance, Possession by A.S. Byatt has some of the finest prose you’ll ever see; of course, it’s about a forbidden love letter correspondence between two poets from centuries ago.
There is nothing ancient about Freedom. Patty is a modern woman who drives a Volvo and lives in the burbs. Walter is an environmentalist who’s busy pushing an agenda to save the birds in the snooziest section of an otherwise briskly paced read. (I’m being generous with snooziest. The section was like 120 pages of Greenpeace.) Maybe fifty years from now, we will look back on the novel as being better than it was, as we are wont to do with novels. It never turns into a murder mystery, a race relations novel, or a magical realism novel where Walt just starts floating away in cockroach form. He should be commended for remaining true to his focus. (Although the supposed prophetic penis of one character might qualify.)
Unfortunately for Frazen, the accurate portrayer of American life that he is, we are left with the reality that upper-middle class Americans aren’t that interesting. Yes, it’s sad that the environment is being ravaged by real estate developers. It’s sad that we have urges to cheat and we follow through with them. But the thing that Franzen is being praised for is also his biggest limitation. We want the Great American Novel, but the 2012 America needs a little bit of something else. When Twain wrote Huck Finn, there was great adventure in a terrible world where nigger was an inextricable part of many lexicons. If Franzen wants to sniff the polish of Twain’s boot-straps, he needs to break free from writing about the Un-Great Modern American Family. Clearly he has a gift, but is he a Yo Yo Ma who’s trying to paint? The reader can derive two things from reading this book: ‘style’ (out the yin-yang) and ‘don’t write about mopey married people’. You’ll notice that Anna Karenina didn’t even have Anna as a character until about 150 pages in. Tolstoy did that for a reason: the novel was about the interrelated politics of marriage, not just about Anna’s wandering eye.