Thursday, February 10, 2011

Freedom - just another word for nowhere else to go?

Escaping from a bad book by Pants

During the Christmas holiday I made a third, unsuccessful attempt to read The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen's acclaimed book of ten years ago. It's rare for me not to give a novel a fighting chance to win my affection. Few are the books I have failed to finish. Even when I'm not enjoying one, I persevere because a novel is a journey with the end as its destination and I have already bought, or more likely these days borrowed, my ticket. You can hardly say you hated Paris if you only got as far as the airport.

However, sometimes you just know you'd be better off deciding to go somewhere else instead. I won't be writing a review of The Corrections, now, or ever. I tell this story merely to indicate that I was not well-disposed to the author when I set out to read Freedom, his latest effort. And it was all downhill from there I'm afraid. I made it through all 576 of its pages. I did want to write something about it because of its status as an, or even the important book of the moment. It was done under extreme sufferance, believe me.

But this is not going to be a review, at least not a conventional one. There are plenty of those out there already. I did think I was going to write a review when I sat down which is why I copied out many, many paragraphs of the most turgid prose and dialogue imaginable, as if somehow expecting to logically dismember it to show you why I think this is really, really bad writing.

And then I thought, hang on a minute, this must be patently obvious to anyone who's devoured a few cracking tomes and has actually spent a little time listening to humans form sentences. So why does every literary critic from Äänekoski to Žužemberk think Freedom is not only a Great American Novel but the Great American Novel? It just doesn't add up. And then I thought, whoaa, something else is going on here, right? How else would you explain the deluge of unctuousness and grand claims for this novel. Supposedly, it examines some of the most important and vexing issues of our time. What? Via witterings like this?

‘In my own way,’ Walter said, ‘I guess I was part of a larger cultural shift that was happening in the eighties and nineties. Overpopulation was definitely part of the public conversation in the seventies with Paul Erhlich, and the Club of Rome, and ZPG. And then suddenly it was gone. Became just unmentionable. Part of it was the Green Revolution – you know, still plenty of famines, but not apocalyptic ones. And then population control got a terrible name politically. Totalitarian China with its one-child policy, Indira Gandhi doing forced sterilizations, American ZPG getting painted as nativist and racist…’ and on and on and on.

Quite honestly, can you ever imagine anyone saying anything like this in an actual conversation with anyone? What if I tell you that Walter is in fact talking to his best friend and former college roomie who lived with him during the time he's recounting?

There's really no need to relay any more. It's all like this, pretty much. The characters all sound like they're reading verbatim from either a personal growth manual or an inter-governmental interim report that's about to be justifiably shelved. And they all sound the same, for all of their miserably unennobled lives. Walter speaks in the same stilted, declarative voice throughout, his tone untempered by either time or circumstance. In an actual person, that would be unusual. In a main character in a novel spanning twenty or more years, it’s unforgivable.

Walter's wife Patty is relegated to the ungainly situation of having to explain herself to us autobiographically in the third person, ostensibly as a form of therapy. Presumably Franzen tried, and failed, to achieve a credible 'voice' for her any other way. It's quite pitiful to read the reviews that found this incongruous device acceptable, even refreshing. Given that the omniscient perspective bestowed on the male characters allows them to free range the most hideous and implausible of thoughts without the responsibility of owning them, it seems particularly disingenuous to confine poor Patty to reflection. And given the claustrophobic confines of her world, it's torture for the reader. Not Tolstoy. Not even Toy Story. Not even close.

The rolling exposition trundles by like one of those three-mile-long super freight trains leaving you, the reader, to play the hapless sedan parked by the side of the road while countless identical carriages of indeterminate content pass by. And there you are at a crossroads, waiting to continue your journey, apparently for ever.

So what's going on here? A partial explanation may be found in a theory proposed by John B Thompson in his book about publishing trends, Merchants of Culture. He suggests that publishing businesses are under unreasonable pressure to grow profits in today's stagnant market, a problem which he calls 'the growth conundrum'. They can't publish more books because each new book requires editing and marketing resources, which are finite and add to costs. And they can't rely on existing best-sellers to contribute to growth because their commercial value has probably already peaked. In response to this problem, they have come up with a profit-salvaging product - the 'big book'. Thompson defines this as 'a hoped-for best seller' which 'exists in the space of the possible nourished by hope and expectation.’ In other words, it's a bet, backed to the hilt by buzz and hype, which will hopefully convince sellers and buyers alike that this book is crucial. You can listen to Thompson talking about this phenomenon here.

It makes sense. Franzen won the National Book Award in 2001 and was short-listed for the Pulitzer in 2002 for The Corrections and hadn't published a novel since. Anticipation had reached a frenzy not seen since the days of Harry Potter sequels. Undoubtedly, it was the perfect 'big book' candidate. Any book successfully proposed as a Great American Novel is, by definition, a 'big book'. Popular contenders for the Great American Novel have been a bit thin on the ground since the turn of the millennium. The last book seriously canvassed for this title without a crown was Cormac McCarthy's The Road in 2006. A beautiful, poetic book, exquisitely and tightly written.

How times have changed. Lionel Shriver responded to Freedom in The Independent with justifiable consternation, "Great American Novel" = "doorstop of a book, usually pretentious, written by a man," she said. And she's absolutely right. This is a naked emperor of a book. I can understand the public being taken in, but the critics? So, what's gone wrong in the last five years? Is this really as good as it gets?

Sadly, I think so and here's why. I think the American psyche is in free fall, its convictions reduced to a defensive hotchpotch of beliefs, fears and hatreds. I think hyper-conservatism has fostered a retrofit of a pale-stale-male national perspective circa 1960, to the complete exclusion of any other viewpoint. It's like Mad Men leapt out of the TV and swallowed the continent.

I think the wound to America's cultural confidence inflicted by 9/11 was much more severe and lasting than previously imagined. One thinks of the devastation of the twin towers as striking a symbolic blow to American commerce but, in reality, the financial sector hardly skipped a beat. It was the artists and intellectuals who couldn't process what had happened. (I submit in evidence John Updike's abysmal 2006 novel Terrorist.) But the destruction of the towers was just a punch on the nose, the real body blow appears to have been inflicted by the 2008 financial crisis. The free-market economy in which the nation gullibly invested its self-esteem was found to be not only weak but corrupt too. There is very little goodness to believe in here. And clarity about the principles of decency is fundamental to the moral core of any novel about society.

The other problem, as I see it, is that the liberal left has lost the plot completely. A country where even Democrats are conflicted about whether or not it's a good idea to spend money on educating its children and alleviating the suffering of its poor, sick and old is in real trouble morally. And without clear conviction, there is no firm narrative and strong voice. What you get instead is a lot of qualified, bureaucratic, frequently incoherent hypothesising coming from so-called leaders. The arguments are not being distilled, dispersed and debated, leaving writers without cogent theses and antitheses to explore. Freedom is a book that doesn't seem to believe in itself.

I should add, so as not to sound completely anti to all my lovely American friends, who are amongst the smartest people I know, that the articulation crisis is not confined to American letters. Last year I read A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks. Here's a typical slice,

[Gabriel, a white lawyer, is talking to his client Jenni, a train driver of mixed heritage, over a not-strictly-ethical first date]

‘Do you understand natural selection?

'I think I was off school the week we did that one.'

'It’s like this. Species change because, as they breed, minute errors occur in cell duplication which give minor variations to the offspring. Usually the change dies with the individual. But once in a million times this tiny change gives the individual an advantage in this world, so he’s favoured in breeding. The change is passed on and becomes embedded. The species has evolved. To survive better than your competitors, you need only minute advantages. But some freak change happened in human ancestors. It was not microscopic, it was gigantic. We needed only to keep half a step ahead of other primates and carnivorous land mammals with strong incisors. But instead of that, we produced Shakespeare, Mozart, Newton, Einstein. We only needed a slightly more agile gibbon and we ended up with Sophocles. And the flip side of this colossal and totally unnecessary advantage was that the human genome was, to use our favourite technical term, fucked. It’s unstable, it’s flawed, because it’s ahead of itself. One in a hundred pays the price for everyone else to live their weirdly hyper-advanced lives. They’re the scapegoats. Poor, poor bastards.'

Easily as clueless and nauseating. Maybe Britain is suffering from the same malady?

Oh, and just one final coffin nail before I'm done. I'd have thought a 'big book' and Great American Novel to boot might have warranted a fact checker capable of spotting this howler,

[Walter's Swedish grandfather Einar has sent his relatives back home Christmas letters in which he]

‘lambasted the stupidity of America’s government, the inequities of its political economy, and the fatuity of its religion – drawing, for example, in one particularly caustic Christmas greeting, a cunning parallel between the unwed Madonna of Bethlehem and the “Swedish whore” Ingrid Bergman, the birth of whose own “bastard” (Isabella Rossellini) had been celebrated by American media controlled by “corporate interests”.'

Let's leave aside the gratuitous sexism as it is rampant throughout the book so why quibble about ONE instance? This is factually wrong on several counts. The child born to Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini before they married in 1950 was their son Renato Roberto Giusto Giuseppe, known as Robin. Isabella and her twin Ingrid weren’t born until 1952. And far from being ‘celebrated’ in America, Bergman was run out of town, not daring to return until 1958, two years after she had won an Academy Award for Anastasia. Given that this reporting is from the narrator, and can't therefore be attributed to character bias or unreliable memory, it's an obvious and gauche error. The prosecution rests, your honours.

Nobel Laureate Albert Camus knew a little something about freedom. One of the many things he said about it was,

'Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.'

Oh yeah.

I think it was the wonderfully witty Lionel Shriver who also suggested that a certain cohort of grossly over-feted contemporary male authors might benefit from closer editorial attention. Camus certainly knew how to slenderise prose. The publishers of 'big books' in the future might look to investing a little less on red wine and a little more on red pens, that is if they don't want to send readers spiralling back to the twentieth century in search of a satisfying read. While we're on the subject, here's something Ernest Hemingway supposedly told F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934,

“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

St. Google of Oracle informs me that Franzen’s birthplace of Western Springs, Illinois is a mere 23 minutes (30 in traffic – provided you don’t get into a road rage scenario with Walter Berglund that is) from Hemingway’s in Oak Park. It’s a pity Franzen didn’t inherit Hemingway’s enthusiasm for prose pruning along with his natal zip code.

I feel I ought to make some gesture towards psychic cleansing, so I have today reserved from Larrikin's End Public Library two novels by Lionel Shriver. I would also like to send an open txt msg to Toni Morrison - please write 'big book' of 2011. Thank you.