Sunday, 20 February 2011

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I'm pretty sure that gossip and literature have a deep and intense relationship. The attraction of salacious tittle tattle was surely behind our curiosity regarding just what, exactly, Oedipus said to Jocasta when the penny dropped, even if we dress it up as “pity and fear”.

The great innovation of the novel was to put naturalistic portraits of ordinary people at its centre, which satisfied our curtain-twitching instincts further still. Rather than an insight into the lives of the kings and popes, fiction suddenly offered insight into the world of our friends and neighbours, showing us what went on behind closed doors with the explicitness of first hand testimony.

The naturalistic mode has come to dominate mainstream fiction and drama. It's there in the high-brow and the low, as drama drifts easily into melodrama and then soap. Great literature and drama show us the critical moments in everyday life, showing us the experience of being ourselves from the inside and the out; soap, on the other hand, is every bit of rancid salacious tittle-tattle in the nation concentrated into tiny overpowering nuggets of plot and injected into drama to give it the addictive empty sweetness demanded by commerce.

Great literature and drama show us people living through events that change their lives. In melodrama, sensation is piled on top of sensation – think of The Valley of the Dolls, or the opus of Jackie Collins or Harold Robbins. I remember reading those sorts of books in my teens, but I admit that my interest has waned since I stopped being interested in  thumbing through doorstep novels looking for the lurid sex scenes.

Freedom has its share of lurid sex scenes, it must be said, and it certainly piles on low-key suburban sensation that wouldn't be entirely out of place on Peyton Place or Knot's Landing. It's a highly emotive – some might say even sentimental – novel, too, and the line between genuine moral power and manipulation can be uncertain.

Perhaps because of this, various blue-stocking types have, over the years, and especially in the 20th century, tried to pull literature back from the embarrassing business of real people doing real things. They complain about the middle class angst and literature as a reflection of life, preferring genre fiction that keeps the real at arm's length or high-brow meta-fictions that sooth us with assurances that it's all artifice and not real knowledge at all. The bloodless nerds and nervous censors are united in trying to convince us that detachment and irony are the only correct  approaches to art and that there's something unappealing about books that show people like us doing things we recognise.

So, anyone who doesn't want to read about middle class angst isn't going to want to read this. If you aren't interested in the inner turmoil of handsome well-off white Americans, then Freedom isn't a book for you. As for me, well, I am white, and I certainly aspire to be handsome, well-off and if not American, at least fashionably mid-atlantic, and I loved it.

It's a deceptively plain novel. Four characters get a close third person point of view (one of them in third person autobiography, for your dose of narrative tricksiness) that come together in an intricately inter-weaved plot covering fiftyish years in the lives of Patty and Walter Berglund. It concentrates on events in the last decade, but there's a lot of set up in the Berglund's college years in 70s Minnesota and and their years of suburban comfort.

What elevates this from melodrama and soap, is the way that Franzen draws out the moral temperature of the times from the specifics of the Berglund's situation. Through the characters and their actions in the face of the war in Iraq, environmental devastation, the rabid commercialisation of pop culture, we learn about more than just people, but people at specific moments in time. In this regard, Franzen seems to have had War & Peace in his sights, as it's mentioned several times. I haven't read it (no surprise there, I'd think!) but from my sketchy knowledge I know that it's a family saga against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Franzen is attempting a similar depiction of a critical conflict point of a great – and perhaps declining – empire. He moves the focus from the personal to the political, taking in conservation and the war in Iraq, and these weave in with the characters and their actions to form an examination of the price of freedom.

It's a big theme, and a particularly American one. They seem to obsess about rights and freedom across the pond, while the Old World attitude seems to be that there's no such thing. The myth of America is based on infinite space, infinite resources, room for every man to have everything they want, without let or hindrance. Freedom tries to explain why this is not the case, deomnstrates how the pursuit of some abstract notion of freedom can (probably will) destroy destroy the planet, can lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the name of setting them free.

On a lower level, though, it explores the price of freedom on a personal level. When we're free to make our own decisions, there's no one to blame but yourself when life fails to live up to your dreams, and that's a horrible cost. I don't know about you, but I find it easy to forgive others; I'm a compassionate kind of a guy, and I understand how it is, we all have our bad days. But I find it hard to forgive myself for my own many mistakes.

I generally don't have to live with other people's mistakes. At worst there's a mess to deal with and a bit of tidying up, and then you just get on with things, but my own errors and failings follow me around inside long after anyone who ever knew about them has forgotten. I can think of incidents from my childhood, my adolescence and young adulthood that still make me cringe to think of, petty acts of stupidity, arrogance and obtuseness that left me shamed and ashamed.

It's hard to see ourselves the way others see us. We can't contemplate ourselves with the detachment that we can rationalise others. We know where all our personal bodies are buried, which closets hold skeletons and the thousand shameful motives that lie behind them, and we can never see into another person's life, never know whether our experience is unique to ourselves.

The only way we have of walking in another person's life is through art. By showing us the inner life of other people, faithfully created and rendered, we get a look at ourselves, a moment of understanding that provides reassurance that we're not the only weirdo on Earth. It shows us people like us and helps us understand what drives them, and in the process shows us what drives ourselves. Once we can see things like that, then maybe forgive ourselves a little (heading back to the pity and fear I mentioned at the start, here).

I recognised all the characters in Freedom from my own life. They're about the same age and have the same kind of long view on their lives that I find myself getting in my more ruminative moments. People I knew as kids are grown ups now, some with families of their own, some without, which is sometimes a tale in itself. I've lost a parent, which has stirred up a lot of memories and thoughts making me ponder how I got here from there.

My own life, needless to say, is not a fraction as dramatic as the Berglund's and related clan. The dramatic forces at work in their lives are nothing like the gentle winds that occasionally rock mine, and yet my life isn't without these types of conflicts in milder forms. This is not to say that there's anything especially remarkable like the Berglund's story; it's reassuring in its ordinariness. Ultimately, it's the sort of tale you sometimes hear about some neighbour or branch of cousins that experience some sort of turbulence, except in this case there's no juicy detail omitted.

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