Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Jonathan Franzen's new novel, "Freedom"
August 25, 2010
So what is it about Jonathan Franzen and poo? In 2001, his wonderful breakthrough novel, The Corrections, was momentarily stunk up by a scene in which a senile old man imagines his feces talking back to him. A decade later, Franzen's more staid, more mature, but all around less exciting Freedom reaches its comic zenith when a young man searches through his own excrement with a fork. What seemed like a sophomoric indulgence in that earlier tour de force now smells stale.
Which is one of the problems with Freedom. We've read this story before in The Corrections, back when it was witty, when its satire of contemporary family, business and politics sounded brash and fresh, when its revival of social realism was so boisterous that it ripped the hinges off the doors of American literature. The most anticipated, heralded novel of this year gives us a similarly toxic stew of domestic life, but Franzen's wit has mostly boiled away, leaving a bitter sludge of dysfunction.
Cannily, the slyest part comes up front: a 23-page preface that outlines the rise and fall of Walter and Patty Berglund's marriage in St. Paul, Minn. (You may have read this section last year in the New Yorker.) "Walter's most salient quality, besides his love of Patty, was his niceness," Franzen writes, while Patty was "a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee . . . famously averse to speaking well of herself or ill of anybody else." It's classic Franzen, a smart, acidic take on suburban life and particularly green yuppies, "the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege."