Smiling with Gritted Teeth

May 4, 2011   •   By Joshua Hardina

THE CASE AGAINST JONATHAN FRANZEN goes something like this: He is pretentious and elitist. His disingenuous arguments about Status versus Contract writers are harmful to experimental literature. His miserable depression-soaked characters aren't worth reading or writing about. And his novels' plotless narratives bespeak a failure of the author to imagine aspirations and struggles more ambitious than his own. Oh, and he's a jerk for dissing Oprah.
No other contemporary author of literary fiction has attracted more critical sideswiping, dive-bombing, and swooping-down-upon than Franzen, whose latest novel, Freedom, not only inspired one of the most flattering reviews ever printed in the New York Times but also a typhoon of some of the longest, most relentlessly negative critiques imaginable in an era when long, relentless critiques of any novel seem almost quaint. In this country, he is both more loved and more hated than any other literary fiction writer alive. Reactions as widespread and feverishly divided as those fixed on Franzen practically guarantee that he's doing something right; they prove that someone out there is listening. Many someones. And those someones are too inspired or incensed to let their reactions boil away unproclaimed.

More polarizing than any other aspect of Franzen's writing, if not as widely decried, is just how merciless he can be. One need not read more than a few pages into Freedom or The Corrections to detect the author's oft-begrudged condescension: whether it's Enid and Alfred in a long-seething domestic skirmish over an enormous blue La-Z-Boy, or Patty and Walter in a neighborhood-intriguing zeal to upgrade their home and their lives in their tumbledown portion of St. Paul, Franzen draws our eyes to things that hurt. And the sting of recognition can be intense, especially when that criticism strikes the reader as not quite fair. Doesn't Patty have the right, we might ask, to wallow in a bit of self-pity for having married a man who is morally superior but sexually not all that compelling? And isn't Chip, pushing forty, still allowed to wear leather pants and imagine himself as a kind of dashing intellectual bad boy rather than the aging, reluctantly maturing hipster he's fast become?

Readers who sympathize with Franzen's characters, or aspects of them, often come to the conclusion that either a.) the author is an arrogant, likely bitter, man whose intense dissatisfaction with the world and everyone in it warps his perception of human behavior away from all that is noble towards all that is petty and laughable; or b.) the author is a keenly observant, likely bitter man whose intense dissatisfaction with most of the human behavior he's seen in his short life has sharpened his thematic focus on those aspects of 21st century life most in need of scrutiny; or c.) a combination of a. and b., with an added acknowledgment of how addictively funny the author's books can be.

For those who come to the first conclusion, reading Franzen's novels might feel a little like spending too much time in the company of an overbearing older brother whose imperious unsolicited judgments you're forced to endure. He's got a story to tell, this older brother, and it's worth hearing, but damned if he can't help editorializing. Not that Franzen editorializes. Not exactly. But the behavior he's inclined to portray doesn't necessarily endorse his literary creations as model citizens. His characters feel sorry for themselves. They get depressed. They worry that they aren't living up to their potential, or, worse, that the world refuses to acknowledge their special gifts-gifts they seem unable to fully wield, like kids with oversized baseball bats-leaving them trapped in the lonely confines of their own begrudging egos. Maybe this is why Franzen makes such great use of multiple points of view; in order to tease out the subjective dissonance between Person X's view of himself in the world, and Person Y's view of Person X in that same but subjectively composed world, more than one perspective is necessary. A character like Walter Berglund can appear by turns heroic, sanctimonious, or ridiculous, depending on whose perspective we're getting. The sticking point for some readers, however, is that those different perspectives aren't all that different; for the most part, the Lamberts and the Berglunds all occupy the same socioeconomic turf. Franzen's devotion to representing the kinds of lives with which he is most familiar (middle class, college-educated people coming from unbroken though dysfunctional homes) can throw cold water on the dream of being literarily transported to worlds inhabited by larger-than-life characters struggling against forces more oppressive than what the reader confronts in the respectable salt mines of his or her own day-to-day life. That these conflicted, self-destroying characters deserve more than five hundred pages worth of our time, for these readers, is a hard case to make.

But for those of us who see twentieth century American life the way Franzen sees it — or at least the way we can assume he sees it, based on what he does and doesn't say about it in his novels and essays — these depictions strike us as necessary and vital, inducing in us something like a euphoria of fellow-feeling. So intoxicatingly accurate are his observations of consumerist, late-capitalist, depression-having, medication-taking America that to read them is to feel immediately and intensely less alone. Never mind that his characters aren't as brave or as virtuous as we'd like them to be; we weren't necessarily looking for that in the first place. Because these books aren't about escaping through fantasy; they're about escaping through reality, escaping into the dysfunction of others' more or less miserable lives, so that we might glimpse in their misery that strand of golden thread that the characters can't seem to find for themselves. What we want, or need without knowing we need it, is to experience the exhilaration of literary communion Franzen describes in his 1996 essay "Why Bother," citing linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath:

With near unanimity, Heath's respondents described substantive works of fiction as, she said, "the only places where there was some civic, public hope of coming to grips with the ethical, philosophical and sociopolitical dimensions of life that were elsewhere treated so simplistically. From Agamemnon forward, for example, we've been having to deal with the conflict between loyalty to one's family and loyalty to the state. And strong works of fiction are what refuse to give easy answers to the conflict, to paint things as black and white, good guys versus bad guys. They're everything that pop psychology is not."

And Franzen's novels are everything that the bulk of contemporary American fiction is not. His books aren't populated by vampires or wizards or serial murders or international conspiracies. Nor are they set in exotic locales or brutal historical periods that flatter our enlightened modern-day moralities. Instead, he gives us ourselves. Or at least the bourgeois American version of ourselves — the passive-aggressive, conflicted but law-abiding version of ourselves-smiling, but with gritted teeth.

Given how thoroughly Franzen diagnoses our condition, his unwillingness to provide us with a remedy seems forgivable, perhaps even honorable. He grants us the same desire that he and the rest of Heath's substantive fiction readers share: to be immersed in a work of art that engages with the exasperatingly convoluted polyphony of human thoughts, emotions, and desires that stretch the fabric of personal culpability beyond the blaming point. Once you've witnessed Patty's parents dealing with their daughter's rape in such a shrewd and politicking manner — going so far as to ask their daughter to drop charges due to the rapist's father being a prominent financial contributor to Patty's mother's political campaign — the potential to cast judgment on her passive-aggressive approach to marriage and motherhood slackens off to the point of acceptance, if not complete sympathy. This is still the literary novel's greatest contribution. Where history, psychology, and other modes of inquiry present a world made intelligible from the outside-in, novels seek to understand it from the inside-out; they obliterate the distance-producing egoisms that lure us into easy assumptions about the people around us, instead forcing us to confront the legion of shocks and heartaches and victories that hammer us into the adults we can't help but become.

And this is especially true of the kind of big "social" novels Franzen writes. In order to paint the broadest and most accurate image of ourselves, much canvas and many colors are required. The longer the novel becomes, the more points of view we observe it through, and the deeper our understanding of each character's history becomes, the less possible it is for a writer like Franzen to be didactic. It makes sense, then, that Franzen would mention in more than one interview his desire to write an "unfilmable" novel — a book so densely introspective and narratively subcutaneous that to try to understand its characters through their words and actions alone would be as pointless as trying to understand submarines by watching their periscopes.

One thread that unites Freedom and The Corrections, however, is the depression the author inflicts on his principal characters. Chip, Gary, Denise, Patty, Enid, Alfred, Connie, and Richard all suffer feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy. And it's often during these despairing moments that Franzen's presence is most acutely felt. His added humor helps us endure the hopelessness and inadequacy, even inviting us to laugh with him at how ridiculous it is that his characters — and him, and us — should take themselves so seriously. Witness Chip Lambert kicking his Christmas presents up the stairs to his bedroom. Or Walter Berglund concluding that nothing on the restaurant's menu can be eaten with a clean conscience, save for the potatoes, beans, and freshwater-farmed tilapia. Or Gary Lambert receiving a birthday present from his wife:

His impulse on his birthday, therefore — after Caroline had led him out to the garage and presented him with a darkroom that he didn't need or want — was to weep. From certain pop-psychology books on Caroline's nightstand, however, he'd learned to recognize the Warning Signs of clinical depression, and one of these Warning Signs, the authorities all agreed, was a proclivity to inappropriate weeping, and so he'd swallowed the lump in his throat and bounded around the expensive new darkroom and exclaimed to Caroline (who was experiencing both buyer's remorse and gift-giver's anxiety) that he was utterly delighted with the gift!

These depictions of medium-strength, sub-suicidal depression are about as close to instructional as Franzen's books get, and for readers who occasionally succumb to defeatism when confronted with what appears to be a national dumbing down of a gadgety idiocracy, these passages read like prescriptions for just how much late-capitalist misery we should be expected to endure before reaching the red flag of complete emotional erosion and self-destruction. In this sense, Franzen takes up the mantle he set for himself in 1996, when writing his treatise on the depreciating state of the serious novel led him to try salvaging certain depressed emotional states from the domain of clinical pathology. Proposing a shift from "depressive realism" to "tragic realism," he sought to restore the estranged modern self to its pre-Zoloft dignity. In Freedom, the same instinct is echoed by Richard Katz, one of Franzen's more notably depressed mouthpieces:

Pessimism, feelings of worthlessness and lack of entitlement, inability to derive satisfaction from pleasure, a tormenting awareness of the world's general crappiness: for Katz's Jewish paternal forebears, who'd been driven from shtetl to shtetl by implacable anti-Semites, as for the old Angles and Saxons on his mother's side, who'd labored to grow rye and barley in the poor soils and short summers of northern Europe, feeling bad all the time and expecting the worst had been natural ways of equilibriating themselves with the lousiness of their circumstances. Few things gratified depressives, after all, more than really bad news. This obviously wasn't an optimal way to live, but it had its evolutionary advantages. Depressives in grim situations handed down their genes, however despairingly, while the self-improvers converted to Christianity or moved away to sunnier locales. Grim situations were Katz's niche the way murky water was a carp's.

It makes sense, then, that a murky water-dweller might be a difficult fit with Oprah and the sunnier climates of daytime TV, where the conversations are more or less devoted to sucking the murk out of your water. But Freedom's book sales and Oprah's forgiveness indicate a readership with aqueous lungs still in vital need of the long, serious novel's not-always-100%-happy engagement with its world. Perhaps this is the only consolation we'll get from a Franzen book: the consolation of knowing that other murky water-dwellers are out there, fully conscious of life's unfairness and indifference, yet still carrying on, still thinking and writing about it. Still smiling with gritted teeth.