Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Tolstoy of the Internet Era

by Judith Shulevitz

August 30, 2010

A person who read only the first chapter of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom might be tempted to dismiss it as a pretty callow piece of writing. That chapter freeze-dries the novel's protagonists, the Berglunds, at a moment in history, the 1980s, when they and their kind were still relatively unselfconscious and thus shrink-wrappable. "Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill—the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen on hard times three decades earlier." They drive a Volvo 240, listen to public radio, cook from The Silver Palate cookbook, worry about lead in their Fiestaware, use cloth diapers, fret about maximizing their children's brilliance.

The voice that checks off the items in this yuppie's handbook seems giddy and smug, amused by its own sociological precision. I kept thinking of it as a hectoring presence: that voice. Patty Berglund, says that voice, was "a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee." "There were people," says that voice, "with whom her style of self-deprecation didn't sit well … as if Patty, in exaggerating her own minor defects, were too obviously trying to spare the feelings of less accomplished homemakers." The reader might be forgiven for feeling plunged into a faintly mean-spirited sendup of gentrifiers and overparenters. Franzen himself has called this sort of relentless cataloguing of bourgeois delusions "fault-finding fiction."

The reader of just that first chapter, however, would be wrong about Freedom. The novel aspires to be a portrait of America on a Tolstoyan scale—at least that's one way to interpret the many references to War and Peace in it—and Franzen has indeed absorbed some of Tolstoy's astonishing capacity for empathy. Gentrification and the fetishizing of parenthood occupy the foreground of Franzen's panoramic canvas but have not been reduced to caricature, except in that curious first chapter, which I'll get to later. Rather, they are made to seem like aspects of an urge to nurture that has run amok, two of the many ironies of life under late capitalism chronicled by this exuberant but keenly critical novel.


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