The Test of Character

Book Reviews: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen; and Sunset Park by Paul Auster

Tibor Fischer

“For sheer respite from herself, she picked up War and Peace and read for a long time.” Long before most readers reach this sentence on page 166 of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, they will have figured out that the author is playing the 19th-century game and that Tolstoy’s study of the tergiversations between men and women is very much in his mind. 

Franzen fesses up in the next paragraph as Patty Berglund “wonders if things might have gone differently if she hadn’t reached those pages in which Natasha Rostov, who was obviously meant for the goofy and good Pierre, falls in love with his great cool friend Prince Andrei”.

Jonathan Franzen: Updike with a shot of Wolfe

The love-triangle is duplicated in Freedom by Patty and Walter Berglund and Walter’s cool friend the guitarist Richard Katz. The triangle eats up most of the book, although we do also get some war (Iraq, mostly offstage). 

The success  nine years ago of Franzen’s previous novel, The Corrections (Fourth Estate), surprised me a little. It was hailed by so many as the great American novel. A good read, but was Franzen as funny as Richard Dooling? As stylish as Tom Robbins? As perceptive as Tom Wolfe? As slick as Elmore Leonard? As mordant as Bruce Wagner? I didn’t think so and his chapters set in post-Soviet Lithuania struck me as just a little bit lazy. I couldn’t quite account for the book’s ascent to the very pinnacle of American letters.

Freedom has been so heralded and is already so successful that any review seems futile, but it does largely live up to the hype. Franzen’s dissection of American suburbia and campus life (the three protagonists all meet at university) is as good as it gets — funny, astute, carefully observed, beautifully polished, Updike with a shot of Wolfe. The only reservation I’d have is the length. At nearly 600 pages, almost everything seems to happen in real time and gifted though Franzen is at dialogue, some of the conversations could have been shorter.

Furthermore, you have to know your rock music to understand why Patty shouldn’t like The Eagles and why she hasn’t heard of Magazine. In Richard Katz, Franzen has created one of the best musicians in fiction, partly because the villains are usually more appealing (Katz’s dyspeptic interview with one of his fans is probably the interview most musicians would like to give, but don’t dare to — possibly inspired by the memorable Sid Vicious profile where he announced he’d like to give everyone “a good kicking”). Franzen also wisely goes easy on NME-style terminology of guitar riffs and song qualities (Katz spends most of his time doing building work or philandering).

It’s the amorous to-ing and fro-ing of the main three and their families that is the most successful element of Freedom, although Franzen does attempt to insert a “plot” into Walter’s involvement with an eco-project to save a bird, the cerulean warbler, and with Walter’s son’s scam selling rubbish to the Pentagon. Compared with the subtlety of his characterisation, Franzen’s playing with the machinations of big business and government is a little clumsy. He strays from a world of completely believable, recognizable individuals into the caricatures of satire. The dealings with the American military are less gripping than Walter’s war with his neighbours over their trespassing cats.

I’d hazard a guess that if Franzen votes, it won’t be for the Republicans. (The gap in the market is just so vast, surely there is a high-profile career waiting for an American novelist willing to pen the George-W-was-absolutely-right novel?) Franzen’s left-wing sympathies are very obvious, but he is quite willing to pillory the shortcomings of Democratic do-gooders and campaigners of all sorts. Walter Berglund is an intriguing mixture of the ridiculous and the admirable. Most readers will sympathise with him, when towards the end of the novel he remarks: “I’m still trying to figure out how to live.”

I have to admit that I’ve never been a fan of Paul Auster, and his latest novel Sunset Park has done nothing to dispel my lack of enthusiasm. He evidently suffers from the delusion that forsaking the use of quotation marks in dialogue makes his prose more artistic or serious. This might have been the case in, say, 1913, but really now all it means is that your book is harder to read and if you’re Paul Auster you’re pushing your luck already.

Some people start a squat in Brooklyn (Sunset Park). They get kicked out. That’s pretty much it for story. Like Franzen, Auster flexes his state-of-the-nation muscles. The lynchpin, Miles Heller, has a job in Florida clearing repossessed houses before a liaison with an only-just underage girl forces him to scarper north. Like Freedom, the book is almost exclusively concerned with the bonds between the characters (though there is also a lot about the faits divers of baseball, which may not be that appealing to British readers).

Unlike Franzen, Auster doesn’t fully animate his characters. Sunset Park isn’t excruciatingly boring or terrible, there’s a dutiful, experienced competence, yet somehow Auster’s characters remain that, just characters, emanations of Auster’s mind. Alice Bergstrom, for example, works for American PEN, and this allows Auster to draw generously on its website to elaborate on its activities. You can’t complain about a name-check being given to a put-upon individual like the Chinese intellectual Liu Xiaobo (this was before he won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize), but when a novelist finds himself paraphrasing American PEN press releases, something’s gone wrong with the creative process.

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