(Contains plot spoilers.)
Some novels are meant to be abandoned in hotels.
Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is so ideally suited to being abandoned in a hotel that I have already done it once, by accident, and will soon do it again, by intention. Of course, that means I've bought it twice, and therefore had an outsized impact on perpetuating all the ravages of bestsellerdom. And that means I owe the cosmos a small apology.
I bought it because, well, I enjoyed The Corrections, Franzen's last major novel published nine years ago. I certainly didn't experience The Corrections to be major groundbreaking literature, because when you subtracted the obvious influences of Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, there wasn't all that much left. But it sounded like a talented young writer riffing in admiration of his own influences, and that's a perfectly sound basis for a first book. Obviously, being published a week before 9/11 will make any book seem prophetic, and if The Corrections helped readers discover the genuine originality of De Lillo and Wallace, a purpose was served.
So I bought Freedom. I hesitated, because I prefer to buy books that appear in modest single piles, if not in singles on shelves, and it was hard to find a bookstore that wasn't shoving it at me in big standing displays that presented 15 copies of the book, face out and side by side, as though I might want to choose among them.
But hey, I thought. I admire De Lillo and Wallace, and so does Franzen, and I'm going to be in a lot of hotels.
The first time, I abandoned it in a hotel by accident. I realized at the time that I could live without finishing it, but it was my read-in-bed-before-going-to-sleep novel, and one wants a certain comfort and reliability in that genre. By that time, about 1/3 of the way through. I knew the characters, enjoyed watching them bounce around in their box, and most important, knew that they would never do anything to really upset me. They were like very small mammalian pets who are adorable precisely because they take their lives so seriously -- even though to me their lives look pretty small and, well, now that you mention it, it's kind of hard to tell them apart.
Fortunately, I don't need to write a review, as a lot of people are having this reaction. Here's Paul Constant in The Stranger:
[T]he (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.
It's more extreme than that. Everybody in Freedom is white, straight, and more or less middle class, with the rule-proving exception of a young South Asian woman whose purpose is to be the light of Walter Berglund's late middle age. She makes him feel young again, encourages his idealism, and therefore dies in a car crash as soon as the time comes for Walter's family to come back together for a happy ending -- all well-trodden clichés for a feminine Other. This woman has a sparking personality and intelligence and interesting flaws, but of course we see nothing of her inner life. Only white people have those.
In fact, only one character in the novel could even be called creative or artistic, the rock musician Richard Katz. He, too, has a standard role to play: Walter's lifelong friend and sexual rival, who is finally reduced to irrelevance by his own inability to commit to a woman for more than 15 minutes. Katz does have some inner life: he ruminates endlessly about right and wrong, Hamlet-like, while deferring to "the divining rod in his pants" to handle all the exigencies of action. Even artists are a cliché in this book. Good thing none of them are reading.
It feels shallowly politically correct, in a narrowly American way, to judge a novel based on a demographic census of its characters, but I did really feel hit-over-the-head with the lack of diversity of any kind. Can the literary triumph of 2010 really be a novel in which only straight, white, middle class, non-artistic people are expected to have interesting inner lives -- and who use their 550+ pages of fame to reveal that, well, they're cute and harmless but not really all that interesting?
Sorry, Jonathan Franzen. Your time's up. And my baggage -- in every sense -- is heavy enough without you.