Saturday, September 18, 2010


"The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane." -David Orr

I finally finished Freedom tonight after a long day of roaming the streets of Manhattan with John. We strolled from movie theater to movie theater trying to determine exactly what film deserved our attention on such a lovelylovelylovely Saturday afternoon. (Never Let Me Go won, and despite my near blackout due to the film's content, it was the right choice. I've never done well with medical procedures on screen and wow, that Kira Knightly scene at the end was GRUESOME!)


Freedom. I know I'm not the first of my friends to finish this brick of a novel-- John is reading it, and so is Katie and so is Alison. Lo finished it weeks ago and has moved onto something even more relevant, like her own prose, soon to be revealed at a big night in Seattle. I lent my copy to Megan. I also understand that I'm proceeded by the majority of New York's literati who read it as a sense duty if nothing else.

The Franzen release is long overdue and much anticipated, blah blah, and I've yet to read a review of this novel that dared to crush it. Most reviewers were able to pluck out a few errors and filed their necessary complaints, yet in the end we were in agreement that this novel is nothing less than brilliant, and ENJOYABLE to boot. And all of this despite a reputation to uphold, published nine years after one of the most well received books of this decade. No, I haven't read The Corrections, but in my defense, I was applying to colleges upon its release, and reading Dickens and Cather and Fitzgerald with Mrs. Bauman as an overachieving high school senior.

I read Siddhartha and Damian and Giants of the Earth that year. I read Homer and To Kill a Mockingbird and Shakespeare until my eyes bled. I played Helena in my high school production of Midsummer Nights Dream and drove to Colorado with my best friend to see Jewel at Red Rocks. Judge if you will--I was busy. I was young and impressionable and so very eager to form a canon of my own. The Corrections wasn't part of it, but it will be soon, I assure you. We can talk about that next week if you wish.

Freedom is everything you want it to be, is it not? It's deep and rich and leaves not a stone unturned. It's about Minnesota and Brooklyn--two places I know very well-- and is about people that I swear I've met. Walter and Patty Berglund are, upon their onset, caricatures of the Modern Nuclear Family. They are the Midwestern liberal set often overlooked by established New Yorkers. They are the pioneers of a new America, and are therefore inevitably miserable in their telling.

As I told a friend of mine on Thursday, I hated the characters. I did! They were desperately sad and were too quick to relax into their own self inflicted miseries. They were headaches, every one of them. Walter with his cowardly silences; Patty with her chardonnay; Richard and his insufferable lack of joy. Even poor Connie got dark there for a while. She let Joey determine her life's direction, something I was shocked to see followed to fruition as Joey's little wifey, but indeed she got there.

The story circles the lifespan of a family--Father, Mother, Daughter, Son, while overreaching at points into Walter's Scandinavian ancestry, and Patty's high school date rape, among other normalcies. We got stuck within a few years, the most poignant of which spanned Walter's frantic political outpouring of 'population control' hidden within an oil billionaires trust for a songbird conversation project. This is where Walter hit his stride, and this reader's nose sunk deeper and fiercer into the text.

I took a class during my Junior year at Olaf called Campus Ecology. (It was somewhat radical at the time, although 6 years later seems tired and obvious.) We read David Orr and Mary Oliver and Scott Russell Sander and Paul Gruchow. We preached Environmentalism to our peers and introduced initiatives on water, paper, gasoline, and wind energy. We were cheerleaders for Sustainability and advocates for Local Foods. We were idealists to the highest degree, tracking our carbon footprints with an energy reserved for young minds who don't know any better. (Think: Lalitha.)

We grew vegetables and restored the grasslands and didn't flush after each use, and most importantly, we BELIEVED in our cries. We took Orr and Gruchow as the solid truth. We invited Orr to class one day, actually, and asked him our pressing questions on the specifics of how we could Save The Earth too. How St. Olaf could in fact impact the world for the better. And then. THEN. Later that semester, Gruchow killed himself.

Paul Gruchow, author of Grass Roots, a sacred text to most of us, committed suicide that year. It was crushing, as you can imagine. I remember a real sense of mourning for a man and a way of life that I held so very high. We all spun into a state of confusion and shock and concern for our own sustainable lives that we couldn't wait to start living upon graduation. Paul Gruchow gave his life to causes just like Walter Berglund did. Gruchow screamed 'local', while Berglund cried 'population' but they are one and the same in their cry. It's the idealism that killed Gruchow, I have no doubt about it. Because ideals will never be met. I know this now.

This doesn't mean that we should ever stop reaching (says Walter, as he so genuinely asks his neighbors to keep their cats inside.) but it does mean that we have to find a balance with worldly distractions in order to breathe. Music helps. So do novels. So does theater, and art, and philosophy. Yet Walter rejects all of this in favor of his drowning sorrows. In a brilliantly illustrated scene, he escaped a near riot at the Mountaintop Removal site with Lalitha by returning to his car only to frantically list in his head off the bad mistakes this country is making in its over populated state of new construction. Its funny-- just a little funny-- and Franzen knew it.

You see, Franzen's telling of Walter Berglund seems, at points, to be in jest. It seems that he is pointedly mocking the crazed conservationist trying to save songbirds. Yet we know Franzen to be on Walters side. He wrote an article in the New Yorker this summer about the illegal hunting of songbirds in the Mediterranean. I read the entire article (on the beach!) with a smile, not because I didn't take him seriously, but because I absolutely loved his passion. It was real! It was angry! It was desperate and frantic and so incredibly personal. I like people like that, I gravitate towards them. That article was one of the main reasons I picked up Freedom, again, having no real connection to his past work. (Also, listen to the Radiolab episode 'Oops' for the ethical side of warbler conservancy. Incredibly well done.)

Like Dickens and Tolstoy, Bellow and Austen, Franzen attended to the quiet drama of the interior life before streaming into the modern world. It's complete storytelling, is what it is. No stone left unturned, no detail too small for the telling. He drifts into society, of course he does, name dropping politicians and referencing real rock bands, but inevitably shrinks back into Joey's mind before daring to voice a liberal bias from the third person.

There is so much more to say. I was shocked by the happy ending, SHOCKED. (I haven't read The Corrections, remember, is Franzen known for such grace? I also just watched Never Let Me Go this afternoon, and a crushing final scene seemed so much more plausible.) I was also left shaking my head quickly in confusion over the lack of explanation in the Joey/Patty high school fallout. I would have liked to hear more from Jessica. Why did Lalitha have to die, and did we really need THREE love triangles? But even Franzen needed an editing point, and I suppose the Berglunds were meant to exist off the page and into the world as well. It only makes them more real.

You see, they aren't caricatures, in the end. They are fully formed human beings, fragile and wrecked and loving at the core. It's as if Franzen decided to gut them all before making them habitable, like that big Victorian house in Ramsey Hill where we met Patty and Walter to begin with. It's the initial panic that then allows us to ache with relief when Walter crawls into bed with Patty to warm her after that stint in the freezing Minnesotan air upon the novel's conclusion. I loved that scene. The gutting made him free. Do you get it!?, Franzen seems to be asking. None of the drudgery matters in the end. The Single Human Voice will trump all other noise. And that Voice remains Franzen's masterpiece.

NOTE: I keep reading these bizarre claims on this novel, that its somehow old-timey literary fiction, in its dense telling of a family drama. Are people really not reading anymore? Is Sam Anderson of NY Mag claiming that people have really become too devoured by technology to sit down and read a character driven book? I have a crazy-hard time believing this, and hope beyond all belief that books and writers and fiction won't ever go away. Maybe I just surround myself with book readers, but everyone I know is reading something, aren't they? Books won't disappear, right? SAYITISNTSO.

1 comment:

David Henly said...

It ain't so....

Read "The Corrections" - you'll love it!