Freedom, Art, and the Infernal Machine

My review of Jonathan Franzen‘s new novel, Freedom, is in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. It’s standard operating procedure to clip the beginning of the review, but I want to point to a few sentences a little lower in the piece, in order to get at one of the reasons why I think the novel doesn’t quite come off:

Throughout the novel are glimpses of people who are more coddled by art than inspired by it. A rock club is full of fans of a “gentler and more respectful way of being . . . more in harmony with consuming.” When Richard gives an interview saying rock “never had any subversive edge,” the provocation is subsumed into blogosphere noise. But writing can hurt, Franzen insists, and art can reshape us.

“Richard” is Richard Katz, a musician friend of the couple at the center of the novel, and something of a mouthpiece for the frustration/contempt/weltschmerz Franzen feels toward the way culture is made and consumed in America. There’s no question that Franzen is a firm believer in the power of storytelling—the whole novel is a study in how the stories we tell one another or ourselves can have a huge impact, sometimes literally wound us. Yet in nearly every scene in which Richard arrives, Franzen appears to be wringing his hands over the usefulness of pursuing art in a society that’s dead to it. It’s a valuable question, but Franzen pursues it awkwardly, and doesn’t resolve it in a satisfying way.

The problem is that, within the structure of Freedom, Richard can’t win regardless how much or little he succeeds. His first band, the Traumatics, is a poor-selling but critically acclaimed punk band that puts out grim-titled albums like Greetings From the Bottom of the Mine Shaft. He’s a smart guy who’s engaged in a pointless pursuit according to Patty Berglund, who narrates the bulk of the Traumatics’ history: The band is dedicated, she writes, “to releasing further wryly titled records that a certain kind of critic and about five thousand people in the world liked to listen to, and doing small-venue gigs attended by scruffy, well-educated white guys who were no longer as young as they used to be.” Richard sings angry all-caps lyrics (“A wall of Regis Philbins! I tell you I’m starting to feel/INSANELY HAPPY! INSANELY HAPPY!”) but not many are listening—though Walter, Patty’s husband and Richard’s friend, is among that enthusiastic 5,000.

When people are listening, the deadness of art-making is even worse. Richard later starts a new band that releases an album of polite folk-rock, and it becomes a hit, “the perfect little Christmas gift to leave beneath tastefully trimmed trees in several hundred thousand NPR-listening households.” That mild sneering about popular art expands a few times in the course of the novel. First in an interview where Richard rails about the relationship between art and mass-consumption and iPods:

We in the Chiclet-manufacturing business are not about social justice, we’re not about accurate or objectively verifiable information, we’re not about meaningful labor, we’re not about a coherent set of national ideals, we’re not about wisdom. We’re about choosing what WE want to listen to and ignoring everything else. We’re about ridiculing people who have the bad manners not to want to be cool like us. We’re about giving ourselves a mindless feel-good treat every five minutes.

The feeling of contempt only deepens when Richard heads to Washington, DC, and attends a show by indie-rock cause celebre Conor Oberst at the 9:30 Club. Richard takes in the crowd:

…left to themselves to ritually repudiate, for an hour or two on a Saturday night, the cynicism and anger of their elders. They seemed…to bear malice toward nobody. Katz could see it in their clothing, which bespoke none of the rage and disaffection of the crowds he’d been a part of as a youngster. They gathered not in anger but in celebration of their having found, as a generation, a gentler and more respectful way of being. A way, not incidentally, more in harmony with consuming. And so said to him: die.

So how to justify the effort of producing a brick of literature—art!—in 2010 when you’ve expended a lot of effort in its pages dismissing the utility of art, popular or not? A little strangely and unsatisfyingly, it turns out. Franzen has Patty, a woman not especially inclined to reading in his characterization, consume War and Peace, finding parallels in its pages with her own life. (In turn she’ll write her own set of pages that’ll have an impact on her family, pages written in an expert style that recalls a certain American novelist named Jonathan Franzen. Later, people will comment on how well-written those pages are.) And without giving too much of the plot away, it becomes clear that Walter internalized the Traumatics catalog deeply enough to go on an all-caps rant of his own, in a hokey, forced set piece. Awkwardly enough, Franzen is on better footing dismissing the value of art than he is asserting it. And if that’s the case, why bother?

It’s not as if Franzen hasn’t spent serious time trying to answer that question. In his excellent 1996 essay, “Perchance to Dream,” (subscription req’d), he argued that as a novelist he was obligated to look at the big picture, to defend the social novel, even as he was despairing over living in a time when there was no real audience for it. (The essay is a kind of defense of the novel that a certain kind of critic and about five thousand people in the world like.) So Franzen knew, going in, that writing a novel like Freedom would put him in a bind. He writes in the Harpers essay:

The American writer today faces a totalitarianism analogous to the one with which two generations of Eastern Bloc writers had to contend. To ignore it is to court nostalgia. To engage with it, however, is to risk writing fiction that makes the same point over and over: technological consumerism is an infernal machine, technological consumerism is an infernal machine…

Freedom is no nostalgia piece, and there’s much to admire in it—it reads beautifully, has an admirable scope, and the extended parts about bird population and coal mining are less draggy than they have any right to be, even with one long scene literally taking place in a conference room. But it’s a novel with that persistent, irritating drumbeat in the background—technological consumerism is an infernal machine…—and while Franzen obviously threw his best effort into stifling that noise, to cover it up in singing prose and intimate characterizations, the platitude just keeps welling up.

12 thoughts on “Freedom, Art, and the Infernal Machine

  1. Certainly an odd stance from a writer whose last literary novel was a bestseller and an Oprah book club pick – in other words, both a serious work of art and financially successful. Seems like he’s one of the lucky few who gets to have it both ways – but still feels guilty, as if the market success of the book somehow negated its artistic aspirations.

  2. Thanks, Mark. And you’ve accomplished one possible outcome for a review, in my case, pass. It sounds like the book is not much more than a bald, unexamined stance and a review of a lot of topical matters. We see another problem in the literary scene — the Sun-Times didn’t give you much space to make your case, a problem elsewhere.

    If he wants to take on our cultural decay, why do it through the vehicle of a punk rock band? How much can that yield?

    “[R]eleasing further wryly titled records that a certain kind of critic and about five thousand people in the world liked to listen to” reminds me of criticism he’s made of other writers today and their work, and I suspect is a veiled dig. But what has he himself, esthetically, put against it for comparison?

    There is so much writing in American lit, so much other art in our culture, past and present, that he could have touched one way or another for comparison and contrast. Instead, it looks like he’s ignored or turned his back on it. In fact he sounds like a product of the mess himself. And he has an audience and reputation and guaranteed sales. Why not branch out and develop?

    I’m rereading Heinrich Boll’s Group Portrait with Lady now, for the third time. Look at the corrupt culture Boll takes on — the Third Reich! Yet the book is alive with cultural reference and humanity and depth and perception and inventive, utterly engaging writing. It is a book that restores the possibilities of culture, of humanity.

  3. “In his excellent 1996 essay, “Perchance to Dream,” (subscription req’d), he argued that as a novelist he was obligated to look at the big picture, to defend the social novel, even as he was despairing over living in a time when there was no real audience for it.”

    From what I gather, Franzen didn’t defend the social novel, he more or less buried the idea of it. He thinks of the social novel, as he defines it, an impossibility.


    Q: Many critics are saying that The Corrections is the next social novel. Would you agree?

    A: No. I want to curl up and take a nap when I hear the phrase “social novel.” So I would never want to apply that term to my book, because I wouldn’t want you to think of it as a snore.

    1. Franzen is uncomfortable with the term, and he knows that the “social novel” doesn’t have the cultural force it once did—these days people reflexively think such a thing must be a “snore,” as he points out. But he still spends time in “Perchance to Dream” defending the social novel in spite of a media culture that has limited its power and a reading culture that seems increasingly disinterested in consuming it. The social novelist, he writes in the essay, “desires to represent the world not simply in its detail but in its essence, to shine light on the morally blind eye of the virtual whirlwind, and who believes that human beings deserve better than the future of attractively priced electronic panderings that is even now being conspired for them.” If that’s not Freedom‘s mission statement, I don’t know what is.

  4. I’m probably wrong, but I can’t think of a single author who is respected and lasts who calls attention to his morality and social mission. The goal of good writers is to be good writers.

  5. I loved THE CORRECTIONS and am loving FREEDOM (nearing the half-way point). I can’t say I see Franzen’s melancholy about the uselessness of art as a flaw, or as something that needs to be resolved. I think writers today frequently carry a kind of depression around about the fact that novels reach an increasingly small audience and seem to have no real chance of influencing society. (Though it’s worth posing the question of whether they ever did, with the exception of a few novels about social ills that tend not to be well regarded as art to begin with.) And yet, they go on writing, because that’s who they are. What resolution to this could there possibly be?

  6. Patty is the clue, isn’t she? When you have a sports jock whose written therapy exercise reads exactly like Jonathan Franzen, some weird transaction has taken place. In this case, Franzen has simply steamrollered his character – and why? Because his conscious intentions for the book have proved more important to him than his characters.

    And how can that ever, in the end, be right? If art is to succeed in an age when ‘technological consumerism is an infernal machine’, it needs to succeed via authenticity. It needs to succeed via character and story, not a plan, not a strategy.

    That’s not to say Freedom is a bad novel. Of course it isn’t – all the same, though, it’s accomplishment ends up being less than the sum of the author’s very considerable parts.

  7. I’m indifferent to the writer’s anguish over the value of art. I’m happy to read all the intellectual doubts and dissections in the world. But I also want an author to believe in his or her guts that a book is worth writing. Otherwise, why should I read it?

    Overall, I agree with Harry Bingham that Freedom is finally less than the sum of the author’s (or I would say the novel’s) considerable parts. My main problems were with the “Iraq war contractor” and “Warbler versus Mine” plots, both of which seemed to me designed to act as parts of a “decade-summarizing” statement.

    But instead of delivering a grand zeitgeist synthesis, I thought those sections just went clink-clank-clunk, and pulled the novel down with it. By trying to do more, Franzen ended up with less.

    Which is not to say, as Harry also discusses, that Freedom is a bad novel. It’s not. And I do think Franzen is a major writer, which means his failures are considerably more valuable than most authors’ successes.

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