Problematizing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

Having read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom twice already, a novel which I obsessed about even before I have read it, it is easy to know why, despite the critical acclaim, it has been shunned by most of the award-giving bodies, like the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards.  Freedom, to heretically paraphrase the whole narrative, is the story of Patty and Walter Berglund, a middle-class suburban family trying to come to grips with mediocrity, infidelity, politics, economic decline and the threat of climate change in post 9/11 America.  Patty (who I am slightly attracted to) is a bipolar overachiever who, in a twist of fate, settled for the geeky and population-obsessed boy, after her knee injury which forced her out of a bright basketball career. Walter, on the other hand, is a responsible man and an awkward father, eager to change the world for the better by preserving the natural world and saving what’s left of the Cerulean Warbler. Their kids, Jessica and Joey, are emotional train wrecks, immensely traumatized by their mother’s need to be overtly-maternal and their father’s sternness and self-righteous outlook in life. With an amusing and riveting cast of characters, including the crass and sex-craved Richard Katz, the eager-to-please Connie and the lovely and intelligent Lalitha, Freedom is a precise and beautiful rendering of contemporary American life.

So why didn’t it win any awards?  Certainly, Franzen has the knack for language. His narration is evocative, beautiful, oddly poignant most of the time, but intelligent. He’s does not have the incredible vitality and the poetic bravado that Updike has, but his prose can give David Foster Wallace a run for his money (ironically, he did, as they both admit to being rivals, as well as good friends). The novel also  tackled all the great themes of present American life: marital strain, the condition of the middle-class, the economic regression,  the great republican and democrat debate, the war on terrorism, the post generation-X funk of today’s youth and, of course, the Jewish-American experience. He explored issues of striking relevance, lingered on the issues, and attempted to cover the most important aspects of these social concerns, and he did it eloquently, with interest, so as not to bore any reader. Finally, as with any Franzen novel, his characters spring out the page. I for one, cannot help but fall in love with Patty and all her complexities and faults. I am unable to do nothing but be seduced by Connie’s charm, her alluring personality and unwavering, sometimes foolish, loyalty towards Joey. And I wholeheartedly understand Joey for the hatred he harbored for his family. Freedom is a great novel, worthy of being read over and over again. But the things is, it’s simply too traditional. Besides telling one hell of a story, it is a traditional narrative. It’s incredibly linear, the manner of narration simple, consistent and rooted in the traditional  American novel. There are no playful exercises in form and language here. To be quite honest, it actually reminds me of the modern novel, the works of Mark Twain, Gustav Flaubert, and most of the novels before James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.  It resembles the “grand narrative,” the narrative which earnestly tries to encompass the entirety of the human condition. The only new thing which Franzen offers is its willingness to address the eschatological subject of climate change, via Walter’s attempts to save the Cerulean Warbler and his other concerns regarding the environment, echoing Frank Kermode’s sentiments in The Sense of An Ending.

With that, is it possible to conclude that Freedom is actually a devolved form of the novel? Maybe it is. Comparing it to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, one gets the sense that Freedom is a bit too safe, a bit too straightedge. With Egan’s chapter made up of PowerPoint slides, its disjointed narrative, its odd sequencing, its erratic point of views and its ever-shifting tone, not to mention its speculative look on music twenty years from now, Freedom looks a bit boring, too comfortable and too unoriginal.

In terms of profundity though, I think Freedom still has it in the bag, but that is my problem. Is fiction at that state now that it’s giving up content for form? Is it giving up the depth and grandeur for the gimmick of form?   Are we now wired to think that a good story is simply not enough?

On Michael Chabon’s A Model World and Other Stories

I’ve been meaning to read Michael Chabon for quite a while now and I think it was important to begin it with one of his first books, lest I again do the mistake of reading a better work then making the rather unsure pursuit of backtracking the author’s backlist expecting the same beauty and reverence that first book gave you (which I unfortunately experienced with Jeanette Winterson, when I first read Written on the Body, before reading her acclaimed debut, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, which I found to be unsatisfying).

A Model World and Other Stories was a very enjoyable collection, which I read thoroughly in less than five hours, during a particularly hot Sunday afternoon. Divided into two parts, the first section, entitled “A Model World,” comprises of six delightful narratives highlighting Chabon’s talent as a storyteller. In these stories, we are able to see his investment in his characters, the subtle technique he employs in exploring their whole life against the backdrop of a single moment, and even his careful but elegant analysis of their melancholia and solitude. At the same time, we are show his dedication to popular American culture and how it plays a pivotal role in the lives of his characters, whether it be something as common as the typical American wedding, to baseball, comic books and the American college experience.  The second section of the book is truly the best part of the story. Perfectly entitled “The Lost World,” it consists of five interlocking short stories concerning Nathan’s childhood and adolescence. From “The Little Knife,” which talks about his parent’s divorce, to “More than Human” and “Admirals,” which delves into the aftermath of divorce and the ever-pressing issue of sibling rivalry, to “The Halloween Party” and finally, “The Lost World,” where Nathan first feels desire and love and the sadness that comes along with it, Michael Chabon has rendered the entire excruciating progress of growing up. Other than the fact that I absolutely loved it that these stories represented a section of much a larger picture yet built to still have the ability to stand alone, I am in complete adoration of Chabon’s project which involves mapping out the entire erratic emotional landscape traversed in that transition from boyhood to manhood. I’m not talking about a single section of growth, or a particular angst, or a a unique pivotal experience, what Chabon showed is its utter entirety. It begins with the shattering of innocence and stability, the realization that life is full of unexpectedness and sadness, via divorce, a shattering that becomes more and more common. It continues with the ordeal that comes afterwards, and everything that comes along with it, the burden of nostalgia, the need for survival, and the irrepressible act to long for something and to fight for something, to conquer, to own, and to win. Finally, after the entire trauma caused by divorce, the irony comes, that need to fall in love, to be with someone, to be in that trap which has shattered you in the first place. And it is beautiful, especially with Chabon’s eloquence and wit.

I’ve always been attracted to initiation stories. I’ve always loved them. No other form of fiction can move me more than a very good initiation story, from JD Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye, to Gilda Cordero Fernando’s A Wilderness of Sweets, to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, to Douglas Coupland’s Hey Nostradamus and Eleanor Rigby. Chabon’s A Model World and Other Stories  now rank among my favorites. And yes, I’ve become a Chabonite and I think it’s time to put Manhood for Amateurs and The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to my reading list.

On Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho

I’ve been putting off reviewing this novel, but now I’m done with all my deadlines and the extended period of procrastination that I experienced, I really can’t offset it any further. What else can one say with a novel that makes the readers feel the immensity of nothingness? And take note, this is not the nothingness that reminds one of the existentialist and nihilistic pseudo-philosophical perceptions of reality that gained popularity in the 20th century. The nothingness one acquires from this novel is simply a void, a a hollowness, a black hole in one’s mind and soul, and nothing else but that.

The novel begins with a statement scrawled on a wall saying, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” which not only sets the mood of the highly-disturbing novel American Psycho, but also acts as a suggestion, before anyone pursues reading this piece. The intelligent reader would do well if he/she does “abandon all hope,” because here is a narrative where that abstract, highly-idealistic concept is not found. It is ultimately irrelevant once we enter Patrick Bateman’s head. There is no hope for Bateman, for the people he surrounds himself with, and finally, there is no hope for the fictive world brilliantly and accurately rendered by the author.

Most of us are already familiar with the plot of this narrative due to its film adaptation starring Christian Bale (I doubt anyone can forget that scene where he whacks Jared Leto with an axe while discussing the fine points of the newest Huey Lewis and The News album, while the band’s single, “Hip to be Square,” blares in the background). Patrick Bateman, the protagonist, is an executive at Pierce and Pierce, a very important business firm in New York City. Publicly, he spends his days obsessing over the latest trends in men’s fashion and trying out the newest and most promising restaurants in New York City. On nights, he hangs out with his friends drinking scotch, snorting cocaine in bathroom stalls, in luxurious nightclubs all over the Upper East Side. He works out frequently, makes certain his tan is just right for his skin, and ensures that he preserves his good looks and masculine appeal. Finally, he holds a great fascination for The Patty Winters show and its brand of cheap gossip masking itself as relevant news. His private life is a different story altogether. Bateman possesses a contempt that could rival that of Adolf Hitler’s. He hates the sight of beggars and bums; he treats women as if they’re objects, and thinks that all homosexuals should meet the sharp end of his knife. In addition, he’s not simply those angry, prejudiced pricks that repress all their rage and hatred. He is the one who finds utter pleasure in letting it all out. He goes into killing sprees and revels in the whole process. Worst of all, he is imaginative, devising new ways to torture men, women, children and dogs.

A good half of it is a discussion on men’s fashion and subjects regarding lifestyle, including the beauty of a well-made business card, the functionalities of suits and pants, what to wear to match the article of clothing one is sporting on, and the many benefits one gets from using a particular type of moisturizer or facial mask.  It reads like an issue of a men’s magazine like GQ, Esquire or Men’s Health. But then, we see something that would make a French Transgressive Film look like an episode of Dora the Explorer. All of Bateman’s unconscious intensities, the nonchalant manner he has when threatens people, his fascination for serial killers and psychotics, and the anger he hides in daylight, all comes  out whenever he has chosen for himself a prey. An old girlfriend lies naked on the floor, her hands nailed to the apartment floor, her jaw torn apart, holding on to the last breaths she still has as Patrick continuously curses her and takes advantage of her. A prostitute and another girlfriend is drugged into making love with each other, and after, a horrible series of torture occur, including one which involves a rodent entering someone’s anus. A gay man and his puppy are shot in broad daylight. A child in a zoo is horribly slashed to death, leaving his pitiful mother to wail as he loses blood. Everything he does is, for a lack of a better term, fucked up. It’s disgusting, commanding the hair of the readers to stand on end. One finds no pleasure in reading these scenes, but at the same time, one doesn’t have the strength to actually put the novel down. Nobody can truly ever know the extent of Patrick Bateman’s psychosis. Nobody can ever really tell if everything he’s saying actually happened or is a product of his delusions, his dependency on drugs, or the vapid nature of his existence, which makes the novel more troubling as it already is. The sole fact that we don’t know, the idea that we can never be certain of his motivations, is disturbingly unsettling. Certainty is always one’s connection to reason and rationality, and if that is missing, one is left grappling with an unknown enemy in the dark, is more terrifying than facing a monster we can see.

Going Ape Shit Over A Book: On Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad

There comes a time when it’s just so damn difficult to write a proper review just because you are too in love with the subject of the piece. That’s the situation I face with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which recently won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. When I first heard of this novel in 2010, back when Random House initially released the hardcover edition, it immediately got my attention.  Critics praised its publication, despite the uproar and celebration brought by Franzen’s Freedom. When everything else published suffered the ignoring eye of critics and reviewers, Egan’s work gained notice. Some even hailed it as “a new classic of American fiction.” However, that is not the reason why I possessed the incessant need to read the novel. I think I’ve heard and seen the phrase “new American classic” too many times to believe that a book could actually embody such a heavy-handed comment. My desire to read it stemmed from the fact that the work oddly enough sounded like a Cameron Crowe film, or a book penned by Lester Bangs. And by god, I was sold to that idea.

The narrative primarily focuses on Benny Salazar, an aging music producer and the former bassist of “The Pink Dildos,” and her assistant Sasha Taylor, a young woman with a serious kleptomania problem and a terrible past which includes a brief prostitution stint in Naples and a long addiction to heroin, marijuana, among other things. In the course of telling their stories, we are also told the stories of the other characters connected to the two protagonists: Lou, Benny’s mentor, one of the great music executives of the 70’s who lived the “Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll” lifestyle that became rampant in the during that era, Dolly, A PR specialist trying to regain her popularity and dignity after her tragic downfall, Lulu, Dolly’s daughter, who will eventually work for Benny in 2020, and Rob, Sasha’s suicidal best friend, who plays a pivotal role on how Sasha will pursue her life. In addition to that large cast, there’s also Ted, Sasha’s uncle who will search for his niece aimlessly in Naples while reflecting on his love for art and his family, Scotty, Jocelyn and Rhea, Benny’s band mates in The Pink Dildos,  and Kitty Jones, a popular actress who fell off the spotlight after she was almost raped by a journalist.  The multiple narratives of the story are set against the backdrop of the ever-changing American music scene, from the heydays of the punk movement of the seventies, to a speculative take on what the music will be like in 2020.

I began the novel expecting to read something like High Fidelity or Love is A Mixed Tape or even Almost Famous.  I opened the novel feeling relaxed, feeling laid back, anticipating that this will be a light reading, which was a foolish stance at that time. As the pages went on, I delved into a narrative far different from what I initially thought.  This may sound like a cop out, but the thing is, I love every damn section of the narrative. I like its Proustian vibe, on how it tries to tackle the subject of time, memory, its intertwined relationship and the effect brought on by its passing. I like it even more that the basic idea of an exploration was inspired by, of all things, an Elvis Costello song. I love how rock music plays a dominant role in the piece, how the power of this art form actually becomes an essential element in the assembly of one’s life and the structural integrity of a whole community, how one song can transcend its form of being a mere vehicle for entertainment and enjoyment and become a drive force that connects human beings to one another. I love the gimmicks, the so –called literary devices employed in the writing of the novel, how it resists labels and the concept of a genre, as the readers are never  made aware if the text is a novel, a collection of short stories, or a collection of interlocking short stories (From a bookselling and publishing point-of-view, Amazon lists the hardcover edition of this book as a short story collection, while the trade paperback edition is listed under novels, while in the Random House catalog, it’s under short story collections, even is the front cover of the book says it’s a novel). I like the sheer Bakhtinian feel of the novel, the multiplicity of voices (literally and literarily), the abundance of forms used, the constant shift from one decade to the other, to this place and that, to this character and another, and I love how there is no real structure to this seemingly endless shifting, embodying the chaos of their lives, and the pandemonium of the reader’s life. And damn, there’s a short story made entirely of PowerPoint slides, a short narrative focusing on the pauses of several great rock songs, told by Sasha’s daughter. What is the most gimmicky of the entire collection, also turns out the best, as it not only gives us a staggering amount of freshness, it’s also fun, enjoyable and slightly poignant as it tries to delves into the relationship of the family by using pie-charts, bar graphs and statistics.  The characters are instantly relatable and sympathetic. The structuring of the narrative is amazing. The points of view chosen, appropriate. Each detail is exact and precise. For me, the novel can do no wrong. It is perfect, so perfect that I’m starting wonder if what I’m saying is right, or I’m just saying this for the sole reason that this is the kind of novel I have always wanted to write.

Obviously, my biases have yet again taken over me. And I’ve only had my way with the novel once, so, following Nabokov’s paradigm for reading, I have barely touched what the novel really is. Months from now, I will go back to Egan’s work, and I might have a different opinion on the text, on those that I am in completely in adoration of. I might have my qualms about its structure, about how little time was given to a particular character, or about how the balance of the narrative(s) is just off. I may say shit about the whole PowerPoint narrative. Things could go awry and that much is true. But right now, at this very moment, I am completely in love with the book, something which I have not experienced for quite a while in my reading life.

*The book was sent to me by the generous people over at Random House, and will be available in Powerbooks after Holy Week.

On Simon Van Booy’s The Secret Lives of People in Love

Comprised of nineteen short narratives, Simon Van Booy’s The Secret Lives of People in Love offers us exactly what the title promises. Here we have narratives which concerns spirited characters who have luckily survived the tragedy of their lives only to exude a level of hope and produc an overflowing penchant to love and feel the love, fake or otherwise, of the men and women around them, which sometimes, I’m not certain if I’m ready to accept.

In the first story, Little Birds, the reader is introduced to a child protagonist celebrating his birthday. The protagonist lives with a man named Michel, a broken and scarred man (figuratively and literally) who periodically smokes cigarettes, a man who owns an adult video store in one of the dingier streets of Paris, the kind of street where Henry Miller used to stalk during his heydays as a struggling artists. As the narrative progresses, the readers are made aware of the strange relationship between the protagonist and Michel. The protagonist was accidentally (foolishly, actually) left at the train by his parents’ year ago. Michel, feeling pity, familiar with the coldness of solitude and the sting of abandonment, decided to bring the boy home as he searched for his lost family. When the search led to failure, Michel decided to care for him. When one takes the situation out of context, it is safe to assume that Michel kidnapped the boy. It’s easy to say that it will take the boy years before he could fully recover from a horrible event. The trauma will obviously make his life slightly less than bearable. Getting left behind with a stranger who happens to run an Adult Video Store, a broken man who has close ties with drunkards and prostitutes, is not a situation that can be kindly looked upon with sweetness. However, the readers are given something absolutely adverse to what they expect, something that cuts through logic. There is an almost gratuitous level of optimism in the narrative. The protagonist is content with what happened to him and he looks at his existence with, of all things, love. To him, “the key to a good life is to gently overlook the truth and hope that at any moment we can all be reborn” (2).

Most of the narratives in the collection are this way, reeking of uncompromised and distinct hope, bordering on absurdity, attempting to prove the idealistic nature of mankind. Although there is a great resistance on my part to accept such things, I also found this attempt to be refreshing and somewhat lightening. Moreover, this stance Van Booy portrays in his fiction complements his writing style. It’s perfect for his sparse sentences, his subtle tone and the overall silence and solemnity that pervades the language and type of narration employed in the telling of the story.

In reading the stories, one also sees short statements of utter illumination, “one-liners,” if one could call it that, that perfectly captures the essence of a moment in the narrative and tries to heretically summarize the insight that one story conveys. In “The Reappearance of Strawberries,” the main character, in his deathbed, ruminates on his surroundings which somehow evokes his past, particularly the tragic fate that his beloved encountered. The story goes about in narrating that:

“He observed how each raindrop united with its closest other and then, split open by its own weight, ran down the glass in one even corridor. Even after her family was killed, he did nothing—not one thing.

Without memory, he thought, man would be invisible” (12).

Another short statement of utter illumination also appears in “Some Bloom in Darkness,” early on in the story. The protagonist Sabone is revealed to be a sketch artist, and the narrative begins this revelation by saying that:

“Over the years, he had become quite skilled at sketching things. And as he aged, that he was like his sketches—that it was possible to be alive and not exist at the very same moment” (52).

Another, one of my favorites, is found in “Distant Ships.” The protagonist again remembers the terrible loss of his child Leo and like always, each scene that unfurls before him reminds him of his son. As the clock strikes three in the afternoon signalling the end of school, as the children goes into the street, he  remarks that he “would give memory—especially memory—if (he) could hold Leo again.” He then goes on to saying that “the weight of his absence is the weight of the entire world.”

Although I find the entire collection enchanting and beautiful, let me also point out that there is a certain kind of fleetingness in each story. As one reads it, one automatically becomes entirely mesmerized by its awe-inspiring beauty. Strangely enough, that effect comes to a swift end as soon as the narrative reaches its conclusion, unlike other pieces that remains with you for weeks, for months, or even for years. Could it be perhaps the optimism one finds in the narrative? Does this maybe say something about are much-loved inherent cynicism towards the world and towards existence? Are we not built to simply accept happy and hopeful endings?

*The book was sent to me by the wonderful people over at Harper Collins a couple of months back. It’s available in Powerbooks, by the way.