Having just cracked Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, I find myself enjoying it immensely. The characterizations are just so darn funny, the diagnostic thrust so piercing and the prose so delightful. Perhaps, then, I should have avoided David Brooks’ editorial from yesterday about the book. It’s admiring but also pretty qualified, some excerpts of which are worth reprinting:
Very few novels make clear and provocative arguments about American life anymore, but Jonathan Franzen’s important new book, “Freedom,” makes at least two. First, he argues that American culture is overobsessed with personal freedom. Second, he portrays an America where people are unhappy and spiritually stunted.
At a few major moments, he compares his characters to the ones in “War and Peace.” Franzen is obviously trying to make us see the tremendous difference in scope between the two sets of characters. Tolstoy’s characters are spiritually ambitious — ferociously seeking some universal truth that can withstand the tough scrutiny of their own intelligence. Franzen’s modern characters are distracted and semi-helpless. It’s easy to admire Pierre and Prince Andrei. It’s impossible to look upon Walter and Richard with admiration, though it is possible to feel empathy for them.
“Freedom” is not Great Souls Seeking Important Truth. It’s a portrait of an America where the important, honest, fundamental things are being destroyed or built over — and people are left to fumble about, not even aware of what they have lost.
Sometime long ago, a writer by the side of Walden Pond decided that middle-class Americans may seem happy and successful on the outside, but deep down they are leading lives of quiet desperation. This message caught on (it’s flattering to writers and other dissidents), and it became the basis of nearly every depiction of small-town and suburban America since. If you judged by American literature, there are no happy people in the suburbs, and certainly no fulfilled ones.
By now, writers have become trapped in the confines of this orthodoxy. So even a writer as talented as Franzen has apt descriptions of neighborhood cattiness and self-medicating housewives, but ignores anything that might complicate the Quiet Desperation dogma. There’s almost no religion. There’s very little about the world of work and enterprise. There’s an absence of ethnic heritage, military service, technical innovation, scientific research or anything else potentially lofty and ennobling.
“Freedom” is a brilliantly written book that is nonetheless trapped in an intellectual cul de sac — overly gimlet-eyed about American life and lacking an alternative vision of higher ground.