Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Story Material

I find myself oddly yet powerfully drawn in by Betty Duffy and Ross Douthat's reviews of Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom -- oddly because it seems utterly plain to me from their reviews that I would not only fail to enjoy the novel but be actively annoyed by it, but powerfully because it tugs at one of my persistant questions about non-genre writing in this day and age: Is there anything worth writing about?

Douthat remarks:
What if Jane Austen’s Bennet sisters had been bright young graduates of Bowdoin or Colgate or Dartmouth, with protective parents, impressive résumés, and no pressure to wed for anything save love? What if Theodore Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths had been an ambitious young investment banker, with no need to marry money (or murder his mistress!) to secure his place in the sun? What if Anna Karenina had simply divorced her husband when she tired of him? What if Mr. Rochester had dumped his deranged wife and married the au pair, consigning the first Mrs. Rochester to the care of a generous welfare state instead of his attic?

They might have been no happier. Consider the musings of Patty Berglund, a privileged, prosperous, and liberated daughter of today’s liberal gentry, whose marital difficulties supply much of what drama there is in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom:
Where did the self-pity come from? The inordinate volume of it? By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable.
No happier, indeed, but possibly less interesting than a Lizzie Bennet or a Rochester, no? A bit more self-indulgent, irritating, and entitled? And thus a little bit harder for a reader to care about, in the absence of the external obstacles and pressures—class and wealth, cultural convention and social stigma, to say nothing of religious and ethical taboos—that generate most of the conflict, and most of the sympathy, in the novels of an Austen or a Brontë, a George Eliot or an Anthony Trollope?
And yet the sprawling, tangled, tragic, comic, trivial and inspiring canvas of experience which make up intergenerational family life across a swath of time seem like the one thing which, even in our own time, should be completely fascinating. Franzen's book does not sound like one I want to read, and yet just reading the description of his failure makes me very much want to read someone who has succeeded at the project. I wish I thought I knew how (and had the time) to write such a thing.


Fred said...

I'm 4 hours into it (5 to go on audio), and really loving it. I'm surprised at how much I identify with the characters (grad school at Fordham and years of listing to NPR have apparently taken their toll). The storytelling reminds me of Conrad's (thankfully, much less convoluted). And much of the story feels like an expansion of one of Walker Percy's 'thought experiments' from his satire Lost in the Cosmos.

sciencegirl said...

I read "The Corrections" and hated it and all the characters. When everyone is depressed, it's hard to care. Anna Karenina was balanced by the other characters who had different personalities and motivations.

Have you read "Extremely Loud and Dangerously Close" by Jonathan Safran Foer? That's a modern intergenerational family novel that is fascinating.

Anonymous said...

I don't know of any good novels about privileged people, but Whit Stillman's movies about yuppies ("The Last Days of Disco" and "Barcelona") are very good.


Minonda said...

I loved The Corrections and went on to read Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion. I love Jonathan Franzen's writing. I enjoyed Freedom but I was more gripped by The Corrections.

Franzen is writing about American life today, so we are not going to see characters struggling against 19th century limitations. To call his work a failure is ridiculous.

If someone doesn't appreciate a particular work of art, there is no need to question the value of the art. I don't like Picasso's work, but I'm not going to say he failed at what he was trying to do. I just don't like it. Can't the naysayers stop justifying their lack of appreciation by making is sound like the artist's failure?

S_Cobbler said...

Picasso's work may very well be a failure by objective standards of what any visual art should do; while I wouldn't want to judge it based on its adherance to the Romance period's rules, I also wouldn't want to say that "art is whatever you want it to be", which is as much as saying art is nothing. Same goes for books. If I say I don't find modern struggles interesting, that's my problem; if I say I don't see how there is any real struggle or conflict in the book, I may be seeing wrong, in which case it is my problem, or I may be seeing perfectly fine, in which case the author has, indeed, written a rather odd book.