By Nyambura Mutanyi
Jonathan Franzen has a knack for interrogating the idiosyncrasies of America by looking at a family-singular, yet representative. Living in Kenya has its peculiar way of sometimes introducing one to a writer in reverse. And so it is that one will read Franzen’s Freedom before The Corrections and form a sort of reverse judgement. That is not the point of this review, though.
The Lamberts are a normal-enough family when we meet them. Three children, a similar number of grandchildren; parents in retirement. Look again, Franzen keeps telling us as the book progresses. Look again and ask yourself what the content of the American life is. Each of the members of this family seems to be battling something and this makes for the interesting bits of the book.
Bleakness is a currency that Franzen deals in often; he is a purveyor per excellence of misery. His peddling of melancholy, however, is so beautiful that one at times forgets to rail at the things he keeps revealing. Alfred, the head of the family, has Parkinson’s disease. As the book progresses, it consumes him in ways that only lend themselves to a literary representation. If it were a film, we would all be forced to look away as this man’s life unravels. Delivered by Franzen, though, one is kept waiting for the resolution of all the things that seem to be going wrong in this one person’s life.
In this book, the lives of women are interrogated in such strange ways; one almost gets the feeling that Franzen has an issue with women. They are not given a breadth of options; to be ruled by desire, manipulation, primal urges-these are their options. Over and over, the complexity of male characters is explored and that of women shunted. I felt, reading this book, that the resolution of the issues the women encountered was too easy, too neat. Throwing in the token lesbian was no salvation. To his credit, Franzen creates a character in the Lambert daughter whose inner life may be counted next to that of the men. But only just.
His treatment of men, however, was more nuanced. This is a family in flux. Witness the awful Christmas that the reader is made to endure alongside the characters and contrast that with the moments of pleasure and self-investigation that make this book shimmer. These characters have a universal quality to them. The patriarch who seeks dignity above all else as well as the sons from two generations who have to live and make something of themselves in the shadows of their fathers humanise this book. Franzen manages to create characters whose lives are representative of the middle class in America while managing to look into its (sometimes) dark heart.
One of the things that strike the reader is how well time is dealt with; the past so easily feeds into the present. Franzen manages to pack a continuous narrative that dispenses with chapters and flows with engaging ease. The nature of the relationship that Alfred and his wife Enid have with their children casts a pall over everything. Franzen’s postmodernist style lends itself to the exploration of the progression of the formation of these multiple relationships that frame the lives of their adult children along every step of the way. The times in which they live greatly affect the choices each of the characters make and offers great insight into exactly how time and place coalesce to create a person.
The beauty of this book is this: the things that have come to define the West-consumerism, medication of one’s inner life, relentless greed, a sharp shift from industrial economies to an emphasis on technology and its attendant profits above all else-are confronted head-on. The corrections that each of the characters seek are reflected on a national, sometimes international, scale and serve to make this hefty book an incisive read.