I have more to say about Michel Houellebecq’s La Carte et le Territoire, but I’m switching gears today because I finished Franzen’s Freedom last night. It isn’t really my style to trash a novel completely, and Freedom doesn’t actually deserve that, for various reasons that would be a little boring to go into in detail, but I do feel like spending too much time writing about Freedom might actually be a little more than it deserves.
I’ll try to be succinct.
Essentially, my frustration with Freedom is two-fold. First, I am strongly averse to novels which attempt – however clever the writing, however clear and thorough the character analysis – to base an entire fictional universe on what is essentially facile psychology. Not a single person in Freedom did anything unexpected, or behaved in any way which wasn’t already signaled by Franzen in the first few paragraphs of their fictional existence and which was then explained away by Franzen through pop psychology drivel, or, excuse me, ideas.
And second, well, frankly, the book made me feel like I was watching a witty reality TV show. Here are the Berglunds airing their difficult marriage for the entire world to see and comment on. And don’t we all feel so much more superior for not behaving like them? Aren’t they all such sad little creatures? And we can feel sympathetic; we can, but not too much, because really it is all their fault, and the fault of that superficial beast of American culture. I mean, come on, can’t we write incisively, meaningfully, about America without mimicking such a problematic form?
I suppose if I had to, I could come up with something nice to say about this book. But those two reactions trump any praise I might have. Franzen is a good writer, and Freedom is nearly an enjoyable read. But I didn’t find anything really clever in Franzen’s project.
In fairness, I think reading Freedom after finishing Houellebecq might have contributed to the violence of my reaction. The two writers are doing something very similar in their novels. Both are a little manic in their attempt to document contemporary culture, both are cynical toward that society (although their cynicism takes vastly different forms), and both are interested in explaining contemporary neuroses. But where Houellebecq’s metafictional experiment plays with form and content, and therefore implicating the reader which brings his social critique full circle in an ingenuous way, Franzen just seemed to recycle pop culture and superficial psychology.
Did I just go ahead and trash the novel? Okay, yeah, pretty much. Well, maybe in a few days I’ll come back with something more balanced…