Jonathan Franzen’s Genre-Bending FREEDOM: Part II

On September 24, 2010, Part I of Lanie Tankard’s comprehensive review of Freedom was published here. Today the review concludes with a fascinating report on Jonathan Franzen’s visit to Austin, TX, Lanie’s home. Channeling Walter Cronkite, Lanie makes you believe that “You Were There!” If you can, I suggest that you get a cup of java and give yourself an hour to read the rest of her review. It includes amazing links and lots of ideas to think about! Be sure to notice that Franzen says he does not have one favorite book – he has 100 of them!

Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

The second section of Patty’s memoir appears toward the end of the novel: “’MISTAKES WERE MADE (CONCLUSION): A Sort of Letter to Her Reader’ by Patty Berglund.” It consists of one chapter: “Six Years.”

Patty writes in third person, dutifully following Rule #4 of Franzen’s own “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction” presented in The Guardian earlier this year: “Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.” She presents her own reason at the start of her memoir’s conclusion: “The autobiographer…has been trying very hard to write these pages in first and second person. But she seems doomed, alas, as a writer…[to] refer to [herself] in third person…. [S]he still can’t bring herself to let go of a voice she found when she had nothing else to hold on to….”

A third-person voice, of course, can allow a memoir writer to remain an observer detached from emotions, but it doesn’t always work that way. (I’ve explored these nuances in another book review.) It’s always insightful to hear authors read their own works. Franzen added depth to my mental images of his characters as I listened to his voice reading their voices.

Packed house awaits the author at BookPeople, Austin

Franzen’s Writing Rule #6 is: “The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than “The Metamorphosis.”” While Franzen does use memoir in his novel Freedom, he also uses novel in his own memoir, The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. His chapter “The Foreign Language” describes meeting his former wife for the first time. He labels the last three pages, printed in italic, “One other scene from that sort of novel.”

Can a writer separate memoir from fiction and fiction from memoir? Franzen touched on this topic in an August video interview at Barnes & Noble Studio. He says that his first three novels — The Corrections (which won a National Book Award and was a Pulitzer finalist), Strong Motion, and The Twenty-Seventh City — were deliberately satirical. In Freedom, however, he stresses that there is essentially no satire. It’s “made-up stories coming out of the scariest parts of myself.” He calls The Discomfort Zone “a memoir of sorts,” and later reflects on the genre as a whole:

“Writers do raid other people’s experience. Journalists do it all the time. Unless you’ve spent your life in a padded cell, if you try to write a memoir, you’re going to talk about other people. You’re drawing on this stuff, and if you have any sensitivity and any sympathy with other people, you’re actually not just drawing, kind of, the superficial details you see, but you’re incorporating, you’re inventing a story of what was going on with them. And then in fiction, you’re doing it even more so.”

I give the proofreaders of Freedom the very highest marks. I found not a single typo, a rare situation these days. Let’s hear it for the unsung heroes of publishing!

I give the printers the lowest marks, at least on my physical copy. Inkblots resembling black teardrops are splashed on pages 72, 73, 83, 84, and 110. After I determined that this effect was not a segue into a graphic novel, I considered exchanging the book but finally decided to keep it, especially after Franzen personalized the title page with a signature to me — and then smiled and shook my hand. I now view my black ink blobs as mute testimony to the frenzied anticipation of Freedom’s arrival. (And I rate my cover sans O a collector’s item!)

Yet as an editor (and a Virgo), I need to nitpick several tiny details in this book that I enthusiastically recommend. I would have made several editorial decisions differently. I’ve never been a huge fan of semicolons, and in one repetitive use of them I could see no reason or logic behind their insertion. And I feel strongly that an editor should have reined in the overly long blocks of type, particularly at the novel’s end. Franzen may have been attempting to keep the story going, as he did tell the Austin audience that he was not trying to make a modular book but rather “wanted to write something that keeps moving along.” Or else he may have been offering Walter Berglund a vehicle for his ravings. As a reader, however, I wanted to cry out “Whoa, Nellie!” to the runaway paragraphs whose length galloped to infinity and beyond.

And I’m still bothered by the physical evaporation of the memoir’s conclusion.  Let’s track the entire manuscript throughout the novel. Patty writes the first four chapters of her autobiography at the suggestion of her therapist, and leaves them for Richard to read. Richard then leaves them for Walter to read. Credit the power of memoir to move each man to take different actions. I don’t really need to know what happened to that actual manuscript once the reading of it impelled those two men.

Patty then later writes her conclusion at the suggestion of Richard, and mails it to Walter to read — except that he doesn’t even open it. Two months later, she goes to see him in person. He then opens his mail but refuses to read the memoir. He runs down to the lake: “Somehow he was still clutching her manuscript.” That’s the last we ever hear of it. Now, I can accept that ultimately perhaps it didn’t matter to the plot whether he read it or not. But what happened to it? This time, its disappearance in the novel feels like a loose end. If Walter wasn’t going to read it, then why didn’t he stuff it in his pocket, fling it to the four winds by the lake, or bring it back to the house to start a fire? I like closure. I think the Freedom manuscript needed buffing by an editor. Although in fairness to editors, authors don’t always take suggestions and they are the ones writing the books.

The Shakespeare epigraph from The Winter’s Tale setting the theme at the beginning of Freedom does wing its way gracefully home, though, in the last sentence of the middle paragraph of page 535. The following succinct summary of The Winter’s Tale done by Michael J. Cummings illustrates many parallels between the two works: “The Winter’s Tale is traditionally classed as a comedy because the play ends happily. First, the protagonist, King Leontes, reconciles with a friend he had earlier rejected. Then he reunites with his wife, who was thought dead. However, the play is probably better classed as a tragicomedy because, preceding the happy ending, the king’s little boy dies, a bear kills a faithful lord of the court, and Leontes suffers a humiliating downfall before realizing and acknowledging mistakes he has made.” In Freedom, Patty (not Walter) is the character who pens a memoir titled “Mistakes Were Made.”

The epigraph Franzen selected brings to mind other contemporary novelists who trekked the poignant marriage terrain in related brilliant ways: Anne Tyler in Ladder of Years, Wallace Stegner in Crossing to Safety, and Stephen King in Lisey’s Story.

Franzen has also published a collection of his essays, many of which are personal narratives, called How to Be Alone. Some of these classify as memoir vignettes — particularly his eloquent piece about Alzheimer’s titled “My Father’s Brain,” and his moving article “Meet Me in St. Louis” about being asked to enter his old house by Oprah Winfrey’s camera crew. He’s the type of writer who makes the reader nod in silent recognition, thinking, “Oh yes, I’ve been there, too. I know that spot in my heart.”

When composing material about one’s life, writers might consider using the devices Franzen has worked into Freedommemoir, autobiography, Q&A interview, editorial, and pro & con debate — or perhaps employing the personal history format of his Discomfort Zone or the essay arrangement with personal narratives or vignettes of his How to Be Alone.

Franzen’s translation of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 German play Spring Awakening has some noteworthy similarities to parts of Freedom. (Franzen distanced himself from the 2006 rock musical version that garnered eight Tony Awards, calling it “insipid” in his 2008 introduction to the play.)

While Wedekind did not write a memoir per se, he kept journals partly to use as a base for writing plays. The journals were published as a diary in 1990. According to Franzen’s introduction to Spring Awakening, Wedekind was “a lifelong guitar player,” as was Richard Katz in Freedom. Spring Awakening also dealt with many of the same potentially shocking themes as Freedom, including a character named Wendla Bergmann — somewhat similar to the name Walter Berglund in Freedom. Indeed, Franzen’s own description of Spring Awakening in his introduction (“the laughability of adolescent sorrows, the sorrows of adolescent laughability”) could also be applied to Freedom.

Brian Boyd in his book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, suggests “evolution can explain the bases not only of human behavior…but also of culture and freedom.” Boyd, university distinguished professor in the Department of English at the University of Auckland, posits, “…[S]torytelling sharpens our social cognition, prompts us to reconsider human experience, and spurs our creativity….” He links “…literature with the whole of life, with other human activities and capacities, and their relation to those of other animals as they compete, cooperate, and play, as they observe, understand, and empathize with others.” And Boyd calls literature “…our best repository of information about human experience….”

Franzen offers in Freedom uncannily detailed surveillance on our time together — for a particular set of people on this planet in this country during a certain period of history — with scrutiny that amazes. It comes close to a dissertation in American Studies. When he signed my book, I asked him how he had managed to capture all the spot-on observations of the minutiae of our era.

“Are you constantly jotting down notes as you’re out and about?” I asked.

“No, never,” he replied.

“All from memory?”

“It helps not to watch a lot of TV,” he said with a smile.

Franzen does not relish being photographed, so the Austin audience was beseeched by BookPeople employees beforehand not to snap any pictures. Emerging from behind a blue curtain wearing jeans and a long-sleeved green plaid shirt, he carried a black leather briefcase, which he placed behind the podium.

Camera-shy Franzen gets his name on the marquee

“I feel bad that so many of you are standing up,” he began, adjusting his trademark black glasses. “But of course, so am I.”

Grinning (and likely wishing he had packed a short-sleeved shirt), he continued.

“Hi Austin,” he said. “It’s hot.”

After Franzen read from Freedom, he graciously answered audience questions. Here is a selection:

Do you have a special time of day to write?

“I go as quickly as possible from sleeping to working. I’ve had an office for some time, since the 1990s, in a studio. I leave in the morning with a briefcase, as my Dad used to do. ‘I’m off to work. I have a job, too!’”

Are you the 21st century’s “Great American Novelist,” as Time magazine called you?

“I’m the wrong person to ask.”

Do you have a favorite book?

“No. I have a hundred. One recent one was The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead.”

Do you ever get close to a character?

“If they’re funny. Pain and humor are intermingled. [You’re] trying to [relate] between your raw experience and a reader. You don’t want to hear me screaming in pain. With a novel, you want the pain to be there but you want it to have a boss and the boss should be the novelist.”

When you were growing up, were there any books that influenced you?

“Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. It led me to believe that I could be a writer. I was very taken with the Dr. Doolittle books, too.”

Did your college education play a role in making you a writer?

“I had professors who were able to open up really deep books and explain them, and show me that they had been written by human beings. That made me think I could also write one of those things, since I am a human being.”

He looked around the room at all the audience members holding copies of Freedom.

“That so many people would buy a hardcover book rather than one to read on somebody’s glowing plastic device says a lot about the future of reading.”

Will you talk about the elephant in the room? Today Oprah picked your book for her book club.

“This evening is the first experience of that. So far, it’s okay. I think it’s a good sign that was the seventh question. The announcement was just made today, and it seems to be a low-key thing so far. So much craziness and stupidity happened nine years ago.”

Will you address the other elephant in the room: Do you think there is gender bias in the publishing industry, and in book critics? As you’re probably aware, the big topic of discussion on Twitter is #Franzenfreude.

“I don’t get tweets. I’d call it the warthog in the room, or the guinea pig. A lot of women are buying my books. Women are very seriously underrepresented in the lists of great literature, like Alice Munro. The critical privilege of a certain kind of moral male writing probably has something to do with that. I don’t disagree. There’s no controversy.”

So what’s next?

“St. Louis. [Referring to his next book tour stop, followed by laughter] I’ve always been committed to the novel. It’s what I’ve spent my life fighting for. But it’s hard to write a novel if you don’t have anything to say. It’s not like I have information that you need, like a research book. It takes me a long time if something hasn’t changed significantly in me or something new hasn’t happened [in my life]. Patience is the hardest task, especially if you’ve published some books already. These last few years have been some of the best of my life [writing Freedom]. I had a purpose and the days went by.”

Lanie Tankard

Lanie Tankard

Lanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews.

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
This entry was posted in Guest blogger and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Jonathan Franzen’s Genre-Bending FREEDOM: Part II

  1. Jon Nuelle says:

    This is much more interesting than the savage review “Freedom” got in this month’s “Atlantic.” A shot of snark seems like the (tiresome) industry-standard dosage for most lit crit reviews of popular hard-covers. Myers’ Atlantic review feels more like a bucketful. The question that barks myers’ shin near the end of the litany of complaint is an important one: How are novelists to deal with the causes/effects of our culture’s linguistic mediocrity? There are terrible costs inherent in the inability to express complexity with any precision. Authors like Franzen are clearly trying to plumb the depth of those costs.

    Exactly how Franzen’s own recent memoir (one that mixes complexity and remembrance just fine, thanks) influenced the structure of “Freedom” is an interesting question indeed. It’s also telling that the author did not offer a pat answer in response. It is hard enough duty for a novelist to attempt to represent the inchoate desires of a rapidly spinning culture. Doing so while using characters who are immersed in semaphoric language that is most heavily influenced by advertising is like making a neurosurgeon wear mittens during the operation. One measure of success for “Freedom” is the extent to which Franzen pulls that off.

    Perhaps Franzen’s writerly prescription to become a better reporter by “watching less TV” should be filled (at least in part) by constructing a memoir?

  2. shirleyhs says:

    Hi, Jon. Welcome to 100memoirs! I have not yet read the review in the latest Atlantic, but you have piqued my curiosity. I can’t imagine a more careful reading of the book than the one Lanie gave it, however. I hope she jumps in to offer her response to your generous comment. I’m sure she will find her own precise language with which to address your complex questions.

  3. Lanie Tankard says:

    Goodness, Jon, you write an excellent review yourself! And you raise many points worth discussing. I hope other readers will weigh in on this round table, too. There does seem to be a lot of snark at large in the land these days. I’ve always thought it was very easy to do snark but very difficult to do a thoughtful, well-researched analysis — probably because it’s a lot more work. That’s likely also why books like FREEDOM don’t come out that often. Steven G. Kellman, in his review of David Denby’s book SNARK, called the phenomenon “a creature of envy”: http://huff.to/9pO1Gi

    A friend wondered recently how much Franzen was influenced by Joyce, as his use of prosecutor and defense techniques reminded her of parts of ULYSSES and the catechism techniques he used. That’s an interesting line of thought, and I wish I knew the answer. I don’t suppose Franzen would weigh in here with an answer, would he?

    Ah, Shirley, precise language! The Latin roots of the word “precise” mean “lopped off, brief” and “to cut.” And that’s precisely what we editors try to do! (Ahem.) Thanks to you for hosting such a marvelous forum for chewing on ideas.

  4. Thank you for this fascinating and uncommonly rich continuation of your review. I had to smile about the semicolon jibe. I have always hated how they look, and yet in my writing in the past five years I’ve used them because often they feel right—yet often I go back and take them out, try to shorten the sentences. I think my favorite use of the semicolon is linking two very short independent clauses. But I still think they are ugly, and I absolutely detest them in quotes, especially in dialogue spoken by tough guys and guys, or simply by normal, civilian folk and not literary types.

    Anyway, the range of your review, from discussing the interesting, disparate elements of this novel to its punctuation and paragraphing, is quite striking and rich. And I really appreciate your noting his dropping the narrative thread of the memoir, because I think many readers do get upset when writers do that, whether from inattention or misjudgment, and it’s something that editors indeed should police. Your review was passionate and informed, pointed out some flaws, and made me want to read this novel. Thanks.

  5. Lanie Tankard says:

    Many thanks, Richard!

    But you must promise to return and post your comments after you read the book as well! Shirley has opened up an excellent discussion forum here. The more readers who weigh in with their thoughts, the higher we’re going to push the literary bar for authors, particularly of memoir.

    Regarding punctuation — I guess we all have our little addictions. I confess to the one-em dash myself. When used in certain ways, I think it can approach eloquence. Somehow, I’ve never really equated a semicolon with eloquence. Franzen is too excellent a writer to use them without reason, though, and FREEDOM is far too excellent a book even to blink at them as they fly by.

    I’m still mulling over Jon Nuelle’s marvelous observation about the neurosurgeon wearing mittens. The analogy really does capture much of what Franzen accomplished in FREEDOM.

  6. shirleyhs says:

    The trials and tribulations of author as rock star.

  7. shirleyhs says:

    Magnified by the speed of Twitter.

  8. Melissa Jantz says:

    I finished reading Freedom earlier this evening, and my overall feeling about the novel was that it was depressing and bleak, even with the supposed happy ending. I was led to your review by Shirley, and I actually went back and read Part 1 after reading about Franzen’s reading in Austin in Part 2. I am wondering now, after reading your review, if Franzen would agree that I picked up on the feelings expressed by some of the characters and their relationships with each other as well as the political climate.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Melissa, thanks for this comment and for taking the time to migrate from FB to this blog. I know Lanie will chime in on this subject too, and I won’t comment on Freedom, since I haven’t read it. You would love the conversation on the Diane Rehm Show a few weeks ago about The Corrections: http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2010-09-22/readers-review-corrections-jonathan-franzen

      But you raise a really interesting point about tone and perspective. What about a book leaves us feeling depressed? Certainly it is not the subject matter. One can read “uplifting” books about cancer, war, divorce, all kinds of calamities. And some writers, Franzen included perhaps, can make the most quotidian events seem depressing. So it isn’t the size of the suffering that makes us feel depressed. Is it the opposite? That the characters,(like ourselves, we may fear) have many privileges and yet lead lives of quiet desperation?

  9. Lanie Tankard says:

    Melissa, thanks for posting your insightful comments! Shirley’s response added even more depth to the issues you raised. I found the Diane Rehm discussion of depression in THE CORRECTIONS (and in writing per se) very enlightening as well.

    There is humor in FREEDOM, but since it’s a portrait of life at a particular time and hence realistic, it is also depressing. I thought Franzen did a masterful job of creating metaphors for so much in society. I’ll bet he would agree that you did pick up on the characters’ feelings and the political climate. So much of art does that to us, doesn’t it? We are moved to tears while standing in front of a painting in a museum, or seeing a photograph that captures a slice of life, or hearing a composition played by a master musician. What’s actually happening then? Are we feeling what the writer, or painter, or photographer, or composer felt while creating the piece? Or have we moved to a new level, and are feeling the emotions of the characters in the novel, or the subject of the painting or photograph, or the musician playing the composition?

    I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy while reading your first few sentences, Melissa. One of my book groups had a fascinating discussion on THE ROAD once, with the majority of the group feeling that it had a horribly depressing and negative ending, and a few of us feeling just the opposite. Books are so much more than the stories themselves. They’re marvelous vehicles for fostering discussions about our reactions and why we may have felt the way we did. They make us parse our own emotions and ferret out what triggered them.

    Shirley, your ending comments about the size of the suffering in relation to the feeling of depression is fascinating. Large events naturally leave us with plummeting emotions, but what do the minutiae of our lives do to us — the day-to-day erosion of wood underneath a slowly dripping faucet? They add up, and from time to time wash over us. Does part of a feeling of depression upon reading a novel perhaps come from seeing a bit of ourselves in a certain character or in a particular story line? Or is it a reaction to a larger condition, our shared common humanity — the Zeitgeist?

    I’m reading Nick Hornby’s JULIET, NAKED right now, to lead the discussion for a book group later this month. Hornby deals with some of the same basic relationship issues as Franzen did in FREEDOM, with keen observations on societal issues, yet the poignancy of the book is lighter (although I’m only halfway through!).

    I thought the last paragraph of FREEDOM — beginning on page 558 (“Her eyes weren’t blinking….”) and ending on page 559 (….the smallest feather on the wind.”), quite close to the end of the book — held within it both joy and sadness. And yet to me, it seemed a true rendition of life as we know it on Earth, and summed up our difficult efforts to connect with one another.

    Oh, I do hope others will post comments and continue this discussion!

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