David Brooks’ provocative review of Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom, says more about how we should read novels than it does about anything else. He is right that Franzen’s primary arguments are:
1. Americans are overly obsessed with personal freedom, and
2. Contemporary America is largely unhappy and spiritually stunted.
But Brooks is wrong about the role of the novel in needing to present an answer, or a way out of either of these two themes. Merely revealing these two alone is the task of Freedom, and Franzen performs them with the utmost mastery.
Brooks’ problem with the book is that it feels emblematic of a trend, or more accurately, an agenda, hence the title of the article, “The Freedom Agenda” on behalf of writers to deprive the reading public of a sense of personal greatness. And he presents this as an almost conspiracy, or at best a missed opportunity to depict Americana in its more authentic dimension.
This failure is not new according to Brooks, however. In fact, he argues, it started at Walden Pond, when Thoreau quipped, “the masses of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Let me briefly summarize the problem with this statement for Brooks and what it has resulted in for contemporary literature.
For Brooks, writers need to connect with the authentic simplicity of Americans, and respect our national pride in the capitalist work ethic, and provide us with a model to transcend our mediocre and vapid lives. What he ends up saying is that writers are too complicated for their own subjects and they imbue a conflated sense of desperation onto an imagined American archetype that is not accurate.
Curiously, he does not refer to this model as an aesthetic model, but I think that would strengthen his argument by making it actually rooted in literature criticism, and not some sort of thinly veiled desire for national pride.
I argue that at the core of Brooks’ desire for novelists to point out the hidden happiness of Americans lies in his desire to invert Thoreau’s quip to something like the following:
The masses of men lead lives of content appreciation for conventional luxuries and capitalist innovations.
Let me be clear, Brooks does not have a problem with Franzen revealing the desperate and depressing dimension of our post modern lives. He does not argue against it empirically. He is just trying to point out that Franzen, like a great deal of other writers, is out of touch with American life at the core. Brooks thinks we are more multi-dimensional, interesting, and religious than overly educated Atheist novelists such as Franzen do. I read this as an almost class statement. For Brooks, despite the over-educated imagination of novelists, Americans actually do have an inner sense of greatness or at least we yearn (maybe yelp!) for greatness. But does Brooks maybe conflate greatness with contentment, and is not contentment the source of apathy, which leads to mediocrity?
In response to Brooks, I would like to point out the following:
1. I do not believe that a novel, or art in general, should have a duty to provide a model for living as Brooks argues. And having a model does not improve the form of the novel; on the contrary, I think it might make the form more pretentious.
2. Some of the best art leaves this responsibility to the reader. Does it not seem naïve to think that art should provide an answer?
3. The presentation of reality in the novel should seek to uncover something hidden, something real, but the novel does not have to provide a way out.
In Freedom, Franzen depicts each character as utterly objectified and highly idiosyncratic. As fighting miniscule battles that absorb them in petty concerns, where they lack the bigger tragic and dramatic dimensions to their lives.
The characters’ deepest desires always rub up against a system of rules, competition, expectation, and longing for status, and this system prevents them from realizing any real form of greatness. The perfect example is the seminal moment for Patty that shaped her character the most was when her mother refused to allow her to process her childhood rape because they were overly concerned with maintaining a certain privileged relationship with the family of the boy who raped her. The character of Richard Katz, the singer-songwriter who can only satisfy his deep frustrations by sleeping with his best friend’s wife presents a second example. But there are other examples in the novel.
To me this trope presents two truths about modern living:
1. We lead lives of contingent and very often very odd circumstance, and we are emotionally unable to escape these events.
2. The terrain of personal freedom is infinite, and we spend much time in it, seeking to unravel mysteries that haunt us our whole lives.
These are hard truths to swallow for anyone, but they are truths nonetheless. Revealing them in the way that Franzen does in Freedom is where his genius lies, and that in and of itself is enough for the novel to be a masterpiece. It wouldn’t even fit for Franzen to provide a way out from this portrayal of American life, and granted it is just one portrayal.
It strikes me that in this context, where personal freedom is reserved to such captivity, (which is why the larger metaphor of the Warbler preserve is so brilliant) that the first task is to identify it, not celebrate some watered-down version of it.
I felt no boredom or depression by the characters in the novel, as an even more critical and ruthless review in The Atlantic put forward. Although I think the characters are meant to present the reader with this affect. Franzen wants you to be a bit disgusted. Might the presentation of this hidden dimension of desperation, inner turmoil, and frustrated dreams a way to heighten the reader’s capacity to avoid them in their own lives? Might we stretch our imagination a bit and begin to notice that perhaps our task is to identify the immense and microscopic roadblocks to our realization of freedom?
By presenting this dimension of our lives, I believe that Franzen is actually doing the reader a service, and this in and of itself is like a model for living, or how not to live. Yes, Freedom does not present admirable characters with big dreams, but the truth is that we are surrounded by this mode of existence in American life, although we fail to appreciate its hold over our lives.
Brooks does not think writers should avoid revealing this hidden dimension to our lives, but that in revealing it, they ought to also celebrate the ways that our society contributes to happiness through technology, science, entrepreneurship, artistic creation, and religiosity. Should fiction be a place for this sort of celebration?
Far from feeling overcome with boredom because the characters are all too ordinary next door neighbors, Freedom does something more ambitious than that. Franzen wants to raise the bar, to challenge the reader, and we should take him up on that challenge.
We should all raise the bar; otherwise our captive spirit will continue to drain.