Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts from the ‘Jonathan Franzen’ category

One of my favorite aspects of being a bookworm is the serendipity of book interaction. Since writing down my intense reaction to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom the other day, I’ve been thinking and re-thinking why I got so upset in the first place. I mean, it’s just a book, right?

But then at noon yesterday I went out to the mailbox and got the mail and there waiting for me was a collection of essays published by Graywolf Press in 1988 called Multicultural Literacy, a book I’ve been waiting for from Bookmooch for a couple of weeks.

Being the impatient reader that I am, I opened to the first essay, delighted to see it was by James Baldwin. I was first introduced to Baldwin’s work with his short story, “Sonny’s Blues” which became one of my favorite stories of all time. It is an incredible story—filled with all the subtlety of a difficult sibling relationship and the pain of creative ache. It is also probably one of the most beautiful meditations on how music moves through an individual that I have ever read. To make the excerpt below understandable, you need to know that Sonny is a musician, but also a heroine addict, and the story is told from the perspective of Sonny’s brother, a teacher, who is watching his brother slowly die. The story ends in a nightclub, where Sonny is playing the piano, hitting deep on a blues tune in an attempt to transpose the essence of his entire life into something tangible:

I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. […] And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.

I include this excerpt for the simple reason that it’s beautiful, but also because of that sneaky word, freedom. Baldwin’s freedom here is like a little origami figure, the more you pull on the folds, the more it opens itself up, leaving you to contemplate the intricate creases. He’s talking about Sonny, of course, and Sonny’s feeling of being trapped, but he’s also talking about the greater black American experience and how it has shaped Sonny, himself, and everyone in the room at this club.

I’m working a little backwards here, because I read the Baldwin essay first, which then brought me to reread “Sonny’s Blues” just after. What I realized after I had finished both pieces was that I finally understood exactly why my reaction to Franzen’s Freedom was so sharp, so angry. I will try to explain.

The Baldwin essay was written in 1963 and it addresses the extremely topical issue at the time, and the unfortunately ever-pertinent issue now, of racism in American society. There are several really strong quotes I’d like to pull out, on a number of issues, but for what I’m writing about today, this one should suffice:

What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors. It’s astounding to me, for example, that so many people really appear to believe that the country was founded by a band of heroes who wanted to be free. That happens not to be true. What happened was that some people left Europe because they couldn’t stay there any longer and had to go someplace else to make it. That’s all. They were hungry, they were poor, they were convicts. Those who were making it in England, for example, did not get on the Mayflower. That’s how the country was settled. Not by Gary Cooper. Yet we have a whole race of people, a whole republic, who believe the myths to the point where even today they select political representatives, as far as I can tell, by how closely they resemble Gary Cooper. Now this is dangerously infantile, and it shows in every level of national life.

So what does this have to do with Freedom? I’m not suggesting that for a book to be worthy, to be considered Serious Literature, it must take up with the very difficult and specific questions of racial identity in American society. No, Baldwin’s overarching lament in his essay is that American society cannot move forward until it recognizes its own inherent fallacies. His particular example is cultural (and still depressingly pertinent) but in the forty-eight years since his essay was published, we’ve added a few more issues into the mix.

This is where I should probably stop and say immediately that none of what I’m saying here is actually a criticism of Freedom the book, the story or the writing. It’s a well-written book, an engaging story, it asks interesting questions about a limited section of American society, it’s even funny at times and it attempts to make some statements about contemporary America.

But it does NOT move America forward by addressing any of those inherent fallacies. If anything it perpetuates them. If the self-indulgent, middle-class notion of ‘freedom’ as examined in Freedom is all that America has to agonize about, then we should consider ourselves pretty damn lucky.

So ultimately my frustration is with the conversation around Freedom, the intense desire to make this the defining book of the century, make it the greatest commentary on American society of the last fifty years. What a load of nonsense.

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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.

And fair.

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…

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