The Emperor Of Proles


Don’t believe the hype, warns Kalpish Ratna. Jonathan Franzen remains just as dull and dreary

Sitting pretty Franzen has got a free pass on his new book
Sitting pretty Franzen has got a free pass on his new book Photo: Geoff Pugh/Rex Features

Why?In the immediate aftermath of reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, the question seems cosmic. Easier far to deal first with the what.

This is a book in search of an idea. Franzen-watchers will turn its pages with escalating déjà vu. We’ve been here before, and those were excerpts? Evidently so. All those disparate exercises we’ve read over the past ten years have now been glued together into story.

It is about the marriage of Walter and Patty Berglund, babes in the wilds of suburbia, and nowhere in the necropolis of fictional marriages will you find another so dull and earnestly dead. That’s the prelude. The rest of the book is about its resurrection.

D. H. Lawrence’s pensée Good Husbands Make Unhappy Wives told this story in 5 lines. Franzen employs near 600 excruciating pages, and with each you wonder why, because, really, he has very little to tell. So prolix in its minutae and so bereft of perspective in its telling, the book zooms in on stubble, blackheads, crow’s feet, laugh lines, warts and fails to recognize the face. Yet, an unmistakable intelligence illuminates the singing prose before it is self-consciously dumbed down into something acceptably clunky.

Patty Berglund, at the beginning of the book is ‘a resource, a sunny carrier of socio-cultural pollen, an affable bee.’ But that’s uncomfortably close to elegance to be truly likable, so Franzen includes a précis for the proles: ‘She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.’

Freedom Janathan Franzen Fourth Estate 570pp; Rs 680
Freedom Janathan Franzen Fourth Estate 570pp; Rs 680

Throughout, this novel talks down to the reader. It restates every thought in phrases increasingly colloquial and trite, mired more deeply in dither, till it sinks without trace in viscous prose. As I asked earlier—why?

The Berglunds are jolted out of their ordinary niceness when their just-about-teenaged son shacks up with the daughter of a dysfunctional neighbour. Nobody, least of all the Berglunds, can quite understand why. It’s up to Franzen to trot us through what was actually happening all that time everyone was being nice. And what a petty pace, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, with not even dusty death at the end of it.

The characters are gagged at all times by the grating auctorial voice. They are given attributes—Walter is good, Patty is unsure, Richard is wicked, Joey is cold, and Connie is a doormat. The rest you can’t remember anyway. The reader though, perceives these characters very differently—Joey and Connie are into S&M, Richard’s cynical, Patty’s vicious, and Walter’s plain pathetic.

The writer declares himself in swift powerful sketches of atrocities: Patty’s rape, Joey’s conniving cruelties and Walter’s many injuries. But each of these is quickly flattened by the urgency to rationalize rage and Franzen chooses to do this by literary slumming, by reaching for the nearest trope to hang his angst on. Patty’s anger and helplessness over her rape are quickly compacted as dumb acceptance, Joey’s cruelties are sublimated as mechanical sex, and Walter is mostly in denial.

The plot? It is the usual triangle. Patty loves Richard who may or may not love Walter who loves Patty. Walter and Patty get married, and you know just how bad it’s going to get from there. Through this earnest marriage, Patty has the hots for Richard who has ‘groinal stirrings’ for Walter when he is not being so stirred by his groupies. Which brings up the question of sex in this novel. In the case of birds, one luminous sentence says all. ‘It was the season of migration, of flight and song and sex.’ But sex between the humans in Freedom is relentlessly ragged and anhedonic. Even where love makes its uncertain appearance, between Walter and Lalitha, the sneer is a spoiler. ‘Lalitha was really crazy for him, almost literally dripping with desire, certainly strongly seeping with it.’

Was Love’s epiphany ever so sordid? Joey’s moment of truth arrives as he grapples with stinking turds in a scene reminiscent of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Oh, this novel resonates with many other books. The Berglund marriage is brought to denouement by an old trick out of Vanity Fair. The Anna Karenina beginning is recast as: ‘There is, after all, a happiness in unhappiness if it’s the right kind of unhappiness.’ Now and then a Heller-esque lapse betrays the subdermal proximity of Good as Gold and Something Happened—but the timing is never right and the wit always ponderous.

Walter, in his predicament, realizes ‘his life had no controlling narrative.’ Neither does this book.

It’s second half is issue–ridden. Walter gets environment the way prophets get religion, and sets out to save a bird called the Cerulean Warbler by the rather vexed eco-strategy of Mountaintop Removal. Freed from the misery of the Berglund ménage, Franzen begins to enjoy the writing—and we finally begin to hope. It doesn’t last. Guilt trammels Walter’s affair with Lalitha. The familiar conundrum—Who gets the guy?—is solved with the wonted ploy of killing the other woman. You see that Franzen’s constrained to do this, for elsewhere unbelievable things have begun to happen. The young reptile Joey grows a conscience. Richard writes a song for Walter. Patty mourns her lost marriage and recovers her family. It’s all inevitable. With breath knocked out of them, the characters are hauled to a happy ending, and you’re left asking—why?

Unhappiness can either shape a narrative, or like a stiletto, deliver a coup de grâce. Indian writers revel in the Tolstoyan spectrum of unhappy families and three very different novels brand the memory—Manju Kapur’s intense Home, Ruchir Joshi’s imaginative The Last Jet Engine Laugh, and Upamanyu Chatterjee’s sardonic The Last Burden. Freedom, on the other hand, is practically painless once you’re past the agony of reading it.

All the hype? Anatole France has the answer: ‘If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.’


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