I do not know about you, but I’ve been riveted by the debates surrounding Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, "Freedom". In the new issue of The Atlantic, B.R. Myers strikes a devasting blow against a book that has been otherwise roundly praised.
Myers’ issue, and indeed much of the issue literary critics have had with "Freedom", is of course about much more than Franzen’s book. You can hear in both the remarks of admirers and detractors what is essentially a referendum over how we should go about writing novels. Or which is best, a realist or post-modern approach? Where the latter has been ascendant in American literature at least since Don Delillo, realists have mostly taken a beating in the time hence.
There are notable exceptions of course–Updike and late-Roth and Toni Morrison, for example–but by and large the literary establishment has effectively thumbed its nose at the vivid, incisive portrayal of everyday life that is the hallmark realism. But ever since Franzen’s "The Corrections" (2001) proved that realists could again write affectingly about contemporary life, the once debased style has slowly witnessed a revival. Welcome back Lazarus–or better yet, Tolstoy.
So why is Myer’s criticism creating such a stir?
Because he basically calls Franzen’s realism a fraud. Franzen may have caught everyone’s attention by referencing the big social issues of our time–the war in Iraq, Jews, neo-cons, suburbs, exurbs and the Ivy Leagues. But his use of everyday American vernacular, which has become utterly devoid of conveying deep thought, ties his hands.
English today has become so bowdlerized, with all the finer shades of expressive language cut out from it, that "Freedom" is incapable of reaching any deeper truth. The novel is as good as our language, Myers writes, and our language sucks.
But New York Times columnist David Brooks inveighed against Myers yesterday with this: "but surely this is Franzen’s point." Brooks thinks Franzen does a fine job conveying the essential reality of how we live, think and talk today. But, alas, Brooks still thinks he’s too much the dolorous liberal.
Where Franzen sees meaningless in the suburban life of today’s petit bougeoisie–the novel revolves around two yuppies, Walter and Patty Berglund–he conflates their failures with all that is essential about America.
Our country, Brooks implies, is very much about silly things–shopping, sports teams, wanton acts of war–but they have meaning precisely because we have the freedom to make them our own. Triviality, in a word, is the price of freedom, he suggests. Don’t blame the messager.