The reader of just that first chapter, however, would be wrong about Freedom. The novel aspires to be a portrait of America on a Tolstoyan scale—at least that's one way to interpret the many references to War and Peace in it—and Franzen has indeed absorbed some of Tolstoy's astonishing capacity for empathy. Gentrification and the fetishizing of parenthood occupy the foreground of Franzen's panoramic canvas but have not been reduced to caricature, except in that curious first chapter, which I'll get to later. Rather, they are made to seem like aspects of an urge to nurture that has run amok, two of the many ironies of life under late capitalism chronicled by this exuberant but keenly critical novel.
... Patty has carefully constructed her life to be as unlike as possible that of her artsy Westchester family, which is distantly implicated in corrupt New York State Democratic politics. Her parents never took any interest in her career as a basketball star, though they fulsomely overpraised their other children's minor successes in theater and painting. So, to her mother's dismay, Patty chose the University of Minnesota and a Title Nine basketball scholarship over a fancy private school. Moving to the nonironic Midwest also gave her the means to escape the family tone set by her father, a snarky East Coast wit; all she had to do was become relentlessly pleasant, like everyone around her. Walter, a mild-mannered lawyer, has been equally deliberate in his effort to become an intensely nice person, a dialectical refutation of his father, an alcoholic roadside-motel owner who favors his lazier, dumber sons over Walter.
There's an oedipal theory of history, and of America, at work in The Corrections and Freedom. Characters believe they can throw out the past and create a new reality, as if that reality won't prove as restricting as the previous one and as if the next generation won't turn around and do the same thing. Walter's legal career is thwarted by his ferocious politeness, his way of choking everything down. So is his marriage. "Walter's beautiful rage going wasted," Patty laments, about Walter's inability to end a good spat with rough sex. Patty's and his life together unravels when their son, Joey, rejects it, leaving their house even before he finishes high school and moving in with the daughter of Patty's least-loved neighbor, a working-class woman whose redneck boyfriend has unacceptable redneck tastes.
- Judith Schulevitz, "The Tolstoy of the Internet Era"
I've raved about Eva Illouz's Cold Intimacies here before, but it was reading this novel that really brought home to me its value as an interpretive paradigm. Illouz's argument, in brief, is that postwar capitalism has made psychological self-investigation a fundamental part of its functioning. '60s style "self-actualization" psychology, Oprah, and the demand for narratives about the self characteristic of online dating are all part of this epochal shift. Oprah, for her, is an especially important figure. In order to succeed at the kind of therapeutic practice perfected on daytime talk shows, the individual needs to reconstruct a story of her life around a core underlying trauma: she can't sustain relationships with men because she wasn't loved enough as a child. The point, for the audience as well as the people on stage, is that the pathological state is normal, and that self-actualization demands requires constant psychological self-analysis.
In the glowing reviews—as well as, interestingly enough, the denunciations—of Franzen's new novel, we are constantly told that we are looking at the Great Novel of Our Times (or The Overhyped Novel That Encapsulates Everything Wrong With Our Times). Invariably, the reviewers cite the subject matter, the political tone, the Internet-enabledness of Franzen's style. (B.R. Myers is predictably bilious.) In the process, they miss what's really important about Freedom: its total and unquestioning immersion in the vocabulary and mindset of contemporary emotional capitalism. This book may not be the best example, but I haven't yet found one better.
We can already see this element emerging in The Corrections. The family drama here, of course, resolves into four separate psychological narratives, and the plot is driven by the interwoven resolutions of each character's therapeutic process. What keeps the earlier book traditional, however, is the way in which the author designs and presents his sets. They don't pretend to be anything more than boxes in which self-analysis takes place, which is why they are generally sketched out so schematically. (When the narrative shifts briefly to Lithuania, they collapse into absurdity, which clearly suggests the tenuousness of the link between the world of The Corrections and reality.)
Freedom, by contrast, is a resolutely post-9/11 novel. America has been rudely awakened from the cozy involution of the Clinton years, and the reigning opinion is clearly that "after 9/11, to write a non-politically-sensitive novel is barbaric." Franzen's follow-up, accordingly, includes more politics than anyone could reasonably have hoped for. We're meant to sniff at the NPR liberals, recoil in horror from the sinister Jewish PNACniks, cheer along with the environmentalists. The characters get involved in great events, meet stand-ins for prominent political figures, and endlessly position themselves in relation to the political identities of their neighbors. Franzen is clearly making a determined effort to bring the real world into his family drama.
His failure is dramatic and striking. We never get the sense that anything happening here intersects meaningfully with the lives of anyone outside the narrow cast of characters we're introduced to at the beginning. Politics, political opinions, national events—these things only seem real in Freedom. In fact, we've only gone from the wooden set of the Midwestern house to the painted backdrop of the Capitol in the distance. Everything here is about one thing and one thing only: the drama of therapy, self-analysis, and the excavation of the pathological self. (It's no mere stylistic error that the confessional tone of the sections told from Patty's perspective looks so similar to the style of the rest of the book. They're all, in fact, written with a therapist in mind.)
In this sense, Freedom really is a Novel of Our Times. We don't recognize the oddity of this mysterious melding of James and Zola because we've been so thoroughly conditioned by literary fiction to expect characters to be "psychologically complex." Once upon a time, this term referred simply to the need to create characters framed in shades of gray, with nuanced sets of motivations and inner conflicts. For Franzen, it has come to mean accepting and luxuriating in the kind of psychological thinking characteristic of Illouz's emotional capitalism. Compare Franzen with Flannery O'Connor: it's hard to deny that the latter's characters are psychologically complex in the older sense, but it is equally hard to imagine them talking about themselves in the way Franzen's protagonists do.
It is thus both supremely fitting and ironic that the defining feature of Franzen's career so far has been his spat with Oprah. Oprah clearly knew what she was doing when she picked The Corrections for her book club, and Franzen's rejection of her overture was a fantastic example of the kind of denial members of the intellectual class fall into when confronting the emotional-capitalist world. (Illouz insists that the '60s counterculture was as responsible as any corporation for the emergence of this new world.) And as it turns out, Oprah doesn't hold a grudge: she's now picked Freedom for her book club and mended fences with Franzen. Obviously, she knows who her real friends are.