Last week, Jonathan Franzen stood on the stage at Benaroya Hall and proceeded to talk, at length, about the past. From Seattle Arts & Lectures executive director Linda Bowers's stodgy introduction (in which she breathlessly quoted Franzen's laughably Hemingwayesque description of himself: "Who I am is a man who writes novels") to Franzen's mantralike repetition of the words "serious literature" to his frequent praise of the audience for coming out to a book reading, of all things, the whole evening felt like the author imagined himself to be presiding over some kind of a funeral.
With the folksy Midwestern piety of a Lutheran minister, Franzen tut-tutted the masses who choose to "stay home with their televisions and computers," and said that it felt like "a miracle that people came out to see a writer speak" to "a cultural minority that cares about books." (As though scores of people don't come out to book readings in Seattle every day of the week, nearly every day of the year.)
A member of the audience asked if he believed there is "any hope" for a culture whose "young people" are "blogging and texting." Franzen responded by saying there is essentially no hope, that while our culture may have more words, there is not much "serious reading and writing" going on. He took care to lament "companies in Seattle" that are creating and promoting technologies that make novels feel increasingly "minor and marginalized." It was an evening intended to set gray heads sadly shaking, especially when Franzen evoked the imaginary bygone culture that every literate-minded person is nostalgic for, when every (white) American read the same book and reading fiction was "always part of being a well-cultured grown-up."
Franzen's Benaroya Hall appearance marked his only Seattle stop on the tour for his newest novel, Freedom. His onstage lament for a bygone age was entirely appropriate, considering the book he was there to promote. Freedom feels for better and worse like an old-fashioned novel, a huge book overstuffed with Story and Character and a considerable chunk of The Author's Self-Importance.
You would have to be gunning for a fight if you were to deny Freedom's basic pleasures: Franzen knows how to juggle subplots and characters in such a masterful way as to make turning the pages, in the words of several of his characters, a "non-optional" proposition. But Jesus, listen to this:
There's a hazardous sadness to the first sounds of someone else's work in the morning; it's as if stillness experiences pain in being broken. The first minute of the workday reminds you of all the other minutes that a day consists of, and it's never a good thing to think of minutes as individuals. Only after other minutes have joined the naked, lonely first minute does the day become more safely integrated in its dayness.
Overreaching, grandiloquent. And sometimes his metaphors are ridiculous if given more than a moment's thought. A character walks around throwing change into the street: "He threw them all away, the pennies of his innocence, the dimes and quarters of his self-sufficiency." (The Pennies of His Innocence would have made a marvelous title for a Harold Robbins rags-to-riches potboiler.) And consider this whopper: "Connie had a wry, compact intelligence, a firm little clitoris of discernment and sensitivity to which she gave Joey access only behind closed doors." In a way, these minor tonal failings somehow make the mammoth book even more charming. You can't write a Serious Novel of Ideas, after all, without a few duds in the mix, and the duds are fairly insignificant, even forgivable.
But the (admittedly brilliant) storytelling loses some of its luster when you consider what Franzen is employing his formidable talents for. This is yet another book about white upper-middle-class comfortable assholes who do horrible things to themselves and each other because they can't seem to make their lives as perfect as they would like them to be. To put it mildly, this is well-trod ground—it seems as though every literary novelist from the 1950s onward made it his or her calling to call bullshit on the suburban middle-class nuclear family. From John O'Hara to John Updike to Carol Shields to Don DeLillo to Franzen's previous book, The Corrections, authors have written novels—many of which are very good, some of which are masterpieces—about how the American Dream Is a Lie and People Who Have It All Are Really Hurting on the Inside and you must Be True to Yourself. About 20 years ago, Hollywood picked up this trope and ran away with it—American Beauty was the apex (or nadir) of the genre—and the best novelists have thankfully moved on, leaving the unhappy rich adulterous asshole genre to tired has-beens like Richard Ford. (This is not to say that books about unlikable characters are automatically bad; Martin Amis has built a lovely career out of it. But the assholes in Franzen's books are all assholes in the same way, and they are very similar to, if markedly more clever than, the assholes you'd find in a Ford whine-fest.)
Perhaps it's because Franzen is such a gifted storyteller that these tropes feel so tired this time around. You can't escape the feeling that he should be shooting at loftier targets. Where is Franzen's David Foster Wallace–like ambition and inventiveness? You know he has it in him. By writing about the same tired caricatures literary fiction has been picking away at for the last 60 years—the wife and mother who sacrifices it all for her family but finds empowerment in an affair with the worst possible person, the passionate husband who sacrifices his lofty values at the feet of corporate America—Franzen is undermining his own talent. Where is his desire to not just write a very good novel, the kind whose days he insists have passed, but to advance the form into something new? Why does he have this silly tendency to bemoan the passing of the days of yore, preferring to marginalize his audience into what is basically an avid-but-quickly-dying-off band of hobby enthusiasts? Why is he that kid who graduates high school and then just keeps hanging around?
If we assume for a second—against all the evidence to the contrary—that Franzen's hypothesis is true and the novel is dying a long, slow death, it is not the fault of the novel. It is the fault of authors who are so swept up in their own self-regard that they divide books and reading into "serious" and "unserious" categories. (Franzen, of course, considers himself to be the former, but Freedom owes less to the Serious Greats like Tolstoy and more to an author Franzen would no doubt declare unserious and middlebrow: his fellow Time magazine author-of-the-moment cover boy, John Irving. You could make the case that Irving's first four or so superb novels display exponentially more audaciousness than Franzen has put into Freedom, so who's really the middlebrow, here?) Authors like Franzen who scoff at invention and choose to worship at the altar of the dried-up, rarefied 1950s concept of the Great American Novel are the ones who are making a case for mediocrity.