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The Big Show: Franzen, Goodman, and ‘The Great American Novel’

February 19, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

GABRIEL BROWNSTEIN – 9 Feb 2011

 

The summer of 2010:  Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman.

Both are comic-realist novels about recent history, family stories and love stories with subplots about technology and the environment.  Both are ambitious books that attempt to examine the struggles of contemporary America, and both writers model their novels on great 19th Century realist fiction.  While Franzen invokes Tolstoy, Goodman (without ever announcing it) structures her book loosely around Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

Both books are concerned with authenticity, and both books’ protagonists are obsessed with environmental preservation.  In Freedom, Walter Berglund wants to protect songbirds.  In The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine Bach wants to save redwood trees.  In both, the main character’s environmentalism is posed against a second major character’s struggle with aesthetics and materialism.  Both Freedom’s Richard Katz (a musician) and The Cookbook Collector’s George Friedman (an antiquarian) make long speeches about the commodification of beauty.  And in both books, there’s a subplot concerning a dickish and acquisitive young man, aggressive and faux-heroic, who gets into some morally disreputable W. Bush-related business by going after money:  in Freedom it’s war profiteering and contracting, in The Cookbook Collector it’s Internet invasion of privacy and eventually government surveillance.  As Freedom gets much of its ripped-from-the-headlines feel from subplots about the Iraq war, so The Cookbook Collector with the boom and bust of the Internet era.

Both are loose, baggy novels that move from character to character and year to year, with great big imaginative sweeps. Both books center around a family (the Berglunds, the Bachs), both books climax with a love triangle and a trip to a place of environmental crisis, and conclude with a violent death and the consolation of marriage.  Both novels have big canvases that the writers attack with comic gusto.  (The Cookbook Collector moves from boardrooms in Boston to communal houses in Berkeley; it makes you cry about 9/11 and makes you think about David Hume and culinary history.)  Both novels are really books about value, both material and moral.  These are serious books that question value in American life in light of the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Iraq war.

Both are addictive reading. I couldn’t put either one down. And both books were well received.   Reviewers really liked The Cookbook Collector.  They marveled at its intelligence and grace.  It was called “a feast of love;” critics said that Goodman “makes us care,” and that her books was “enchanting and sensuous,” and “flush with warmth and color.”  Critics were somewhat more divided over Freedom, but those who liked it liked it a lot:  “A masterpiece of American fiction,” said Sam Tanenhaus in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, “an indelible portrait of our times,” said Michiko Kakutani in the daily.  And this difference in response mimicked the gap between the two books’ pre-publication hype.  Franzen’s was sold as “The Great American Novel” (that’s what Esquire called it), while The Cookbook Collector was (I guess) just another good book by Allegra Goodman.

Why such a big gap?

I’m sure that a lot of the hype probably has to do with vagaries of the publishing marketplace, mysterious stuff that I can’t speak to. (Like, how’d they get Obama to buy it?)  A lot of the gap in expectations also has to do with the relative success of the authors’ previous books—on the one hand, there was that long wait after Franzen’s mega big hit The Corrections, on the other, a shorter wait after Goodman’s well-regarded Intuition.  (I, for one, sort of expect that every few years Allegra Goodman will give me another terrific novel to read.)  I’m sure part of the wide gap in response has to do with the genders of the authors.   It’s as impossible to imagine Goodman on the cover of Time magazine as it is impossible to imagine Jonathan Franzen getting called “warm and sensuous.”  (There’s a subtext to the praise of The Cookbook Collector that I quoted above, and it’s: Allegra writes like a girl.)  But the difference also is in the books themselves, in the way they approach their readers and their subjects.  As a hundred critics before me have argued, Franzen’s book swaggered out and demanded the response it achieved.  Its title, its 561 pages, and its sweep boldly proclaimed it a Major Novel and critics had to deal with this claim to Majorness.  If you didn’t compare it to The Great Gatsby or Moby-Dick, that was almost a diss.

Freedom got more negative press than did The Cookbook Collector, but that hardly means it’s a weaker book:  it just got more press period, and probably much of the nastier criticism was just counterreaction to all the noise around the novel’s release.  But the book was part of that noise.  Freedom is a terrific performance, but it also sometimes feels like a guy at a dinner party who’s talking very, very loudly.  It mentions War and Peace so many times you’d have to be a dolt not to get the Tolstoyan ambitions.  And some of the book’s weaknesses are part of its terrible roar.  As Charles Baxter wrote in The New York Review of Books, “Freedom’s ambition is to be the sort of novel that sums up an age and that gets everything into it, a heroic and desperate project. The author all but comes out and says so.”  And Franzen’s characters’ actions are sometimes presented with such broad irony that they better serve his point than his plot.  As a result the characters can seem dimwitted; as Baxter put it, “almost every reader of Freedom will be more worldly than its protagonist and will have anticipated several of its key moments many pages before they arrive.”

Meanwhile, for all its sweep and ambition, The Cookbook Collector comes on quite modestly.  As Ron Charles said in The Washington Post: “Goodman is a fantastically fluid writer, and yet for all her skill, she’s a humble, transparent one who stays out of the way, never drawing attention to her style or cleverness.”  Goodman’s gaze is always on her subjects, and she handles her big themes lightly, submerging them in the lives of the books’ characters.  The Cookbook Collector’s literary elegance is part of what made the book invisible to a broad public, while Franzen’s roaring crassness is part of what made his book such a smash.  He’s just a lot louder than she is.

Which is not to say there aren’t lots of ways in which I prefer Franzen to Goodman.  He’s much more interested in the dark side of life than she is.  He writes with sympathy and intelligence about addictions and failed marriages, career failures, and failures in raising children—almost everyone in Freedom is some kind of anxious wreck.  Meanwhile The Cookbook Collector has a pretty uniformly well-adjusted, privileged cast (that’s what you get for following Jane Austen, the lives of the smartest rich girls in the county), most of whom are either making a mint in computers or are enjoying tenure at MIT.  The exception is Goodman’s heroine, Jessamine, the family flake, a confused grad student at Berkeley (egads!), but by the time the novel is done she’s found love, money, and has embarked on a promising academic career.

When people have sex in Freedom, heads bang on walls.  In The Cookbook Collector it’s a finger on the chest and then fade out.  (Goodman does write a very sexy scene of a girl eating a peach.) There are gorgeous flights of imagination in The Cookbook Collector—like the scene where George stumbles upon the collection of its title, 17th Century manuscripts stored in the cabinets and ovens of a musty Bay Area kitchen:

For a moment, he thought she was searching for the iodine, and then he saw them.  Leather-bound, cloth-bound, quartos and folios, books of every size.  The cabinets were stocked with books.  Not a dish or cup in sight.  Only books.  Sandra bent and opened the lower cabinets.  Not a single pot or pan.  Just books.  She stood on a chair to reach the cabinet above the refrigerator.  Books there as well.

George stepped away from the sink without noticing that he had left the water running.  Injury forgotten, he gazed in awe.  He leaned against the counter and stared at bindings of hooped leather, red morocco, black and gold.  Sandra opened a drawer and there lay Le Livre de Cuisine. She opened the drawer below and took out The Accomplisht Cook: or, The Art and Mystery of Cookery.  He opened the book at random:  Section XIII: The First Section for dressing of fish, Shewing divers ways, and the most excellent, for dressing Carps, either Boiled, Stewed, Broiled, Roasted, or Baked, &c.  He had never tried to roast a carp.

But there’s nothing in The Cookbook Collector like the scene in Freedom where a young adulterous husband digs through his own shit for the wedding ring he has swallowed:

He knelt on the cool floor and peered into the bowl at the four large turds afloat in it, hoping to see the glint of gold immediately.  The oldest turd was dark and firm and noduled, the ones from deeper inside him were paler and already dissolving a little.  Although he, like all people, secretly enjoyed the smell of his own farts, the smell of his shit was something else.  It was so bad as to seem evil in a moral way.  He poked one of the softer turds with a fork, trying to rotate it and examine its underside, but it bent and began to crumble, clouding the water brown, and he saw that this business of the fork had been a wishful fantasy.  The water would soon be too turbid to see a ring through, and if the ring broke free of its enveloping matter it would sink to the bottom and possibly go down the drain.  He had no choice but to lift out each turd and run it through fingers, and he had to do this quickly, before things got too waterlogged.  Holding his breath, his eyes watering furiously, he grasped the most promising turd and let go of his most recent fantasy, which was that one hand would suffice.  He had to use both hands, one to hold the shit, and the other to pick through it.  He retched once, drily, and got to work, pushing his fingers into the soft and body-warm and surprisingly lightweight log of excrement.

Goodman glides through her fiction, while with Franzen, it’s always a triple lutz with a camel.  When Jessamine Bach joins an environmental group it’s the prosaically named Save the Trees, and like a real environmentalist, she sits in a treetop canopy to preserve the redwood from loggers.  (That scene in the redwood is beautifully turned.)  When Walter Berglund starts an environmental group, it’s called the Cerulean Warbler Mountain Trust, and Walter’s got a scheme wherein he’ll give over some pristine wilderness to a coal company and then after they’ve removed the mountaintops and fouled the groundwater, he’ll replant the place as a songbird preserve.

Franzen has written a lot about his break from difficult, satiric post-modernism.  In his essay “Mr. Difficult,” he pronounced his split from his one-time hero William Gaddis.  He doesn’t want to write really, really hard intellectual books anymore.  Thing is, Franzen’s over-the-top satire and his pressing of his characters’ faces into humiliation and into the meaningless void—these things really do derive in Franzen from Gaddis, from a dire, post-Beckett aesthetic.  Part of what makes Franzen so exciting to his admirers and so frustrating to his critics is his attempt to wed whacked-out and dark postmodern irony to sympathetic humanist realism.  And in this unlikely marriage problems do arise.  In a crazy-ass postmodern spoof, you can have a character dig through his shit or have an environmentalist join up with a coal company, and this can be part of the cold icy whacky comic mayhem (like in Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own, a novel about a set of interrelated lawsuits, where the cars are called Isuyu and Sosume).  But in a realist novel, this kind of irony can shade into something ugly, can make characters seem plastic and thin and (as Charles Baxter argued) a little stupid.  Franzen’s willingness to abase his characters often reads as if he holds them in contempt.

Part of the difference in reception of the novels might actually have something to do with the two books’ Jewishness—and here we come to another one of the weird parallels between the books.  Both of these are very Jewish novels, and their subplots about Jewishness mirror each other.  In both books, mothers hide their Jewishness from their children, children discover their secret family histories, and these discoveries of secret histories coincide with violent global convulsions.

In Freedom, Patty Berglund, Walter’s wife, keeps her Jewish identity a secret from her kids, and her son Joey (the one who digs through his own shit, the one who gets mixed up in phony arms deals in the Iraq war) discovers his Jewishness late in the novel.  After he makes this discovery of his identity, Joey gets involved with in a scary Jewish family—one that might be modeled on the Kristols or the Wolfowitzes, rich Jews whose interest in Joey’s Jewishness is almost as creepy as their interest in right wing politics, Jews who distribute false information that leads to war.

In The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine and Emily Bach’s mother is dead, but her Jewishness is similarly locked away from them, kept hidden from the girls by their father.  They both learn about their Jewishness at a post-9/11 memorial service—the Bach sisters are related not to assimilated or political Jews, but to Hassidic Jews, in fact to the Bialostoker Rebbe himself.  Goodman’s treatment of Jewishness has a completely different purpose than does Franzen’s.  For Franzen, Jewishness marks another opportunity to explore self-loathing and to memorialize the times—here, to skewer neo-conservatives.  In The Cookbook Collector, the presence of Jews—of rabbis—allows the novel to contemplate value in a whole new light.  Religious value is a central value for Goodman, and one that underpins the whole of her work.  In this book, it is contemplated alongside other human values—material, aesthetic, filial, and romantic.  And all of these things, in Goodman’s eyes, have worth.

Twenty years ago, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay called “E Unibus Plurum: Television and U.S. Fiction,” in which he worried that the irony of his favorite post-moderns (Pynchon, Delillo, Gaddis, Barth) had been co-opted in his generation of post-modernists’ lives by television, in particular leering, cynical “I know this is just an ad” kind of TV ads.  Wallace worried that his generation of post-modernists had fallen into a trap, a reflexive, cold irony he called “televisual,” and he described this irony’s gaze as “the girl who’s dancing with you but who would rather be dancing with someone else.”  Allegra Goodman, of course, is in no danger of falling into this trap.  At the end of The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine Bach’s newly discovered uncle, Rabbi Helfgott, presides over her and George Friedman’s marriage, and it’s clear that the book believes in God and in love, and that Goodman’s fiction exists in a stable, meaningful, social world.  Her subtle literary ironies are of a piece with this large-hearted view.

Meanwhile Franzen’s novel—his whole career, really—is a struggle with this postmodern ironical trap, a struggle to inhabit it and get out of it, to be humane and to be ironic.  At the end of Freedom, when the Berglunds, Walter and Patty, huddle together after 500-plus pages of humiliations, affairs, failures, and addictions, and in the ruins of their marriage find some comfort from the horrid world all around—well, it’s proof (if proof was ever needed) of Franzen’s extraordinary gifts.  This final section succeeds movingly.

But he never can quite turn it off, and you feel it, the televisual irony, all throughout the course of Freedom.  Franzen is dancing with you, sure, and with Walter and Patty as well, and his moves are wild and Tony Manero dazzling—but he’s not wholeheartedly on the floor with his partners.  Allegra Goodman loves her characters—they absorb her attention as if she could wish for nothing more, and she offers them intimately to her readers, so much so that the author herself all but vanishes.  Franzen’s characters meanwhile exist somewhere beneath the glory of his prose.  His book is not so much addressed to the intimate reader, it’s addressed to the judges and the crowds.  His characters are anxious, but he is supremely confident.  He has managed to shuck the difficulties of postmodern fiction while retaining much of its cool and distant pose.

David Foster Wallace had lots of moral and aesthetic problems with televisual irony—he ends that essay about it with an interesting call for earnestness—but he also noted how well it sells.  Half a year after its release, The Cookbook Collector, full of earnestness and love, is between hardcover and paperback editions, and it’s hard to find at your local bookstore. Meanwhile, cool and calculating Freedom sits high on the bestseller list, alone among its literary contemporaries.  That’s some kind of triumph.

http://www.themillions.com/2011/02/the-big-show-franzen-goodman-and-the-great-american-novel.html

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