Friday, September 24, 2010

Review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom: Part II

In the first part of my review of Franzen's Freedom: A Novel, I explained why this novel is entertainment rather than art. Now I will tell you why it is really great entertainment.

The main goal of this novel is to make fun of a certain brand of pseudo progressives who proclaim their allegiance to liberal causes on every corner for the simple reason that this allows them to lead their very conservative lifestyles. Franzen's rabid criticisms of the Democrats don't mean, however, that he is in thrall to the Republicans. In Franzen's world, being a Republican means being so pathetic, ridiculous and stupid, that there is hardly even any need to discuss such blighted existences. The saddest thing for him is that the Republicans have colonized the political discourse in this country to the degree where nothing of substance is left of the Democratic agenda:

The conservatives won. They turned the Democrats into a center-right party. They got the entire country singing ‘God Bless America,’ stress on God, at every single major-league baseball game. They won on every fucking front, but they especially won culturally, and especially regarding babies. In 1970 it was cool to care about the planet’s future and not have kids. Now the one thing everyone agrees on, right and left, is that it’s beautiful to have a lot of babies. The more the better. Kate Winslet is pregnant, hooray hooray. Some dimwit in Iowa just had octuplets, hooray hooray. The conversation about the idiocy of SUVs stops dead the minute people say they’re buying them to protect their precious babies.
The main issue that Freedom: A Novel discusses is whether it is possible to uphold progressive values in any significant way in a society where an ultra-conservative discourse has won such a resounding victory.

One of the main theme of the novel is ecology. Its main characters are preoccupied with the ongoing ecological meltdown and pretend to work to diminish its effects. However, their ecological blabber conceals a strong desire to practice very traditional lifestyles under the guise of being hardcore progressives. Preoccupation with ecology are, in their case, a perfect excuse for participating even more fully in consumer culture. Their carefully practiced political correctness is a way of signalling their high social status:

There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood?
Walter, the main character of the novel, is the epitome of pseudo-progressive hypocrisy. The cause that is nearest and dearest to his heart is that of curtailing the population growth. he believes that if the world population keeps growing at the current rate, an ecological catastrophe awaits us:

We just want to make having babies more of an embarrassment. Like smoking’s an embarrassment. Like being obese is an embarrassment. Like driving an Escalade would be an embarrassment if it weren’t for the kiddie argument. Like living in a four-thousand-square-foot house on a two-acre lot should be an embarrassment.
Of course, as usually happens in such cases, Walter is so worried about over-population because he has very personal reasons to do so. Reasons, one might add, that are as un-progressive as possible:

Hidden at the back of his mind was a wish that everybody else in the world would reproduce a little less, so that he might reproduce a little more, once more, with Lalitha. The wish, of course, was shameful: he was the leader of an antigrowth group, he’d already had two kids at a demographically deplorable young age, he was no longer disappointed in his son, he was almost old enough to be a grandfather. And still he couldn’t stop imagining making Lalitha big with child.
All this advocate of curbing population growth really wants is to have yet another baby with an Indian woman half his age.

In spite of the above-mentioned "contemporary questions," the problems that plague the characters of Franzen's novel are caused by nothing other than their incapacity to give up un the patriarchal model of existence. Here again we see such staples of American literature as a perennially depressed, sexually unsatisfied housewife who has antagonized her children by her neediness, a middle-aged man who is incapable of bringing his pseudo-progressive agenda in touch with his desire to be a patriarch, and their children who are crippled by their parents' neuroses.


Lindsay said...

I really want to read this book.

I loved his earlier one, The Corrections, which had a similar (sub)theme, developed through one character, of mocking the younger generation of suburbanite who prides himself on being so much more evolved than his suburban parents, while living exactly the same kind of life.

I'm hugely excited that Franzen is addressing the ecological aspects of it here. (And I was practically cheering when you excerpted that passage on baby-fetishism ... so true).

eric said...

Given all the one-star reviews by Teabaggers in Amazon, and for the fact that I'm absolutely baffled by our culture's insistent baby-mania, I've got to check this out at the library!

Clarissa said...

The Tea Baggers are too stupid even to realize that what the author delivers is a scathing criticism of the Democrats. They should be enjoying the book, not hating it.

The baby-mania is ridiculed very well in this book, although I think it could be even stronger.

Clarissa said...

Lindsay: I bought the Corrections as well, so the review will be forthcoming whenever I finish. Thanks for the recommendation!

bibliofreak said...

Thanks for a well thought out and full review. I'm still trying to get my head round Freedom(, but looking around I'm certainly seeing a full spectrum of opinion. Certainly Freedom divides.