Franzen’s Freedom

     Amidst the over-the-top hype surrounding Jonathan Franzen’s profoundly disappointing new book was very little discussion about the real reason behind it all: The Corrections. Franzen is not the literary genius Time magazine would have us believe he is, but instead a good fiction writer who happens to have penned maybe the best American novel of the last twenty years. The Corrections is the true reason Freedom and its author were all anyone talked about in the book world for a few weeks last year, perhaps even the actual book critics were reviewing when they wrote gushing raves for a novel that fails in every fundamental way. Yes, there are strong and compelling sequences in Freedom, but, similar to his first two novels, metaphors and ideas quickly trump character and plausibility, long before manufactured sentimentality in the book’s latter stages destroys what fictional world is left to believe in. The Corrections, on the other hand, is a completely different beast. Sardonic where Freedom is earnest, rueful where the new book clings to hope, it succeeds by virtue of the one key element strangely absent from Freedom: satire.

     In The Corrections, Franzen takes deadly aim at our culture of convenience, entitlement and self-satisfaction and riddles it with bullets of such caustic wit that the carnage is of the most pleasurable kind. This crucial satirical dimension allows the characters in The Corrections to come alive in ways they never do in Freedom. The cultural world writ large and its domestic counterpart do not so much collide in The Corrections as seamlessly meld together and it’s Franzen’s satirical eye, not his social perceptiveness or understanding of the pharmaceutical industry, that renders the amalgam convincing. Authorial conviction by itself is never enough; it is the urgency of conviction made intriguing through deftly employed ironic wit that wins us over. When Chip, unemployed and overeducated, slides an eighty dollar salmon filet into his pants while shopping in the “Nightmare of Consumption;” when his unhappily married brother Gary is monitored on a security camera by his own children; when his sexually confused and overly competitive sister Denise stubs out a cigarette in her ear; when their emotionally repressed mother becomes addicted to a new anti-depressant drug called “Aslan,” and their sexually repressed father hallucinates, and carries on a lengthy conversation with, a talking turd, these all succeed as both sympathetic and believable predicaments, and as shrewdly ironic depictions validating our own responses to the absurdities we now confront in daily life.

     Nothing of the sort can be said for almost anything the characters in Freedom do. In other words, the satirical world of The Corrections is our world, but paradoxically, by writing a more naturalistic, conventional, and commercial book, the world of Freedom really only belongs to Franzen, its various political, social and environmental concerns – overpopulation, the breakdown of civility, the destruction of the natural world – barely registering. Despite Franzen’s undeniable talent, the book is largely inert, while The Corrections remains as vital as ever, alive like few novels published in recent years. Interestingly, I know of readers who, having yet to read The Corrections, succumbed to the media onslaught and bought Freedom, and of others who want nothing to do with either book. (Why? The Oprah taint, of course.) But The Corrections, I would argue, is an essential book for our time as it ambitiously confronts our contemporary reality with the unmatched clarity and insight that fiction enlivened by sharp satire affords. This fact is undermined not at all by the failure of Freedom. It simply confirms that, with all due respect to Time magazine and other organs of The Hype Machine, while The Corrections remains essential, Franzen is not.  

—  Michael Carbert