Be Grateful for the Glory that is Jonathan Franzen
The hour draws near. Salutory horns volley in the distance. I hear sighs and the persistent tunk-tunk of fountain pens dropping onto desks across this vast and troubled land. Give up, O pitiful American scribblers. Jonathan Franzen has already (or perhaps once again, I forget) written The Great American Novel and we won't be needing your undernourished little manuscripts; not according to Sam Tanenhaus' review of Freedom (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010), which appears on the cover--and at considerable length inside--this morning's New York Times Book Review.*
According to Tanenhaus--who should know; after all, he's the editor of the Review, and in the best position to judge these things--Freedom is "a masterpiece...a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majectic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life." Franzen uses "phrases with full command of [their] ideological implications." Franzen knows many obscure but revelatory facts. Franzen––that Midwestern renegade genius currently laboring away in a sensory-deprived room on the Upper East Side--even knows that F. Scott Fitzgerald grew up on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota.
How's that for fresh datum? Er, fresh data?
As Tanenhaus reminds us, Franzen's last novel, The Corrections, published days before 9/11, "towered out of the rubble" ( of the attack on The World Trade Center, I think) and became "a beacon lighting the way for a new kind of novel that might break the suffocating grip of postmodernism." Indeed, [The Corrections] "cracked open the opaque shell of postmodernism," replacing it with "an authentic humanism."
But Freedom is even better than The Corrections. For in this latest novel, "Franzen grasps the central paradox of modern American liberalism," Franzen "writes with brilliant economy," Franzen "knows that every man has his reasons." Indeed, every phrase in Franzen's novel brims with "crystalline instances of precise notation shaped by imaginative sympathy."
I must admit that, from reading the review, I couldn't quite figure out the plot of Freedom (a family moves from St. Paul to the tonier regions of Georgetown, goes to a few execrable Bush 2-era dinner parties, has some misadventures with a rock musician who looks like Muammar el-Qaddafi, and returns to Minnesota, wiser for the experience?) But no matter; all will be made clear when the Long Awaited Manuscript goes on sale this Tuesday, because, according to Tanenhaus, "'Freedom' does not just tell an engrossing story. It illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author's profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew."
With all this white light, it seems I won't need a votive candle.
All I can say is Thank you, Mr. Franzen.
*Peace and War by Sam Tanenhaus, a review of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen ( Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010), in The New York Times Book Review, August 29, 2010.