FREEDOM has been criticized as misanthropic; that it dodges personal responsibility by blaming family; that the characters are average people doing unexciting things. These views strike me as short-sighted and missing entirely a prime objective of good literature-the examination of society.
In the face of high ratings by the literati, FREEDOM's odd abundance of extremely low ratings at Amazon.com is highly suspect. (An organized attack, perhaps, by Limbaugh the Frantic's Radical Right?) It's a weak argument for a non-professional to assail a book on the basis of literary merit, but it happens. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and THE GRAPES OF WRATH even today are strangely absent from some school libraries. As is the case with FREEDOM, the appeal of these books stems less from the authors' word skills than from the social ills bared within their pages. And they won literary prizes-salt in the wound for the Right Wing intelligentsia.
Activist art is the bane of bigots, fascists, wily politicians and the economic interests they serve.
Examining social ills is not the same as looking for excuses or for someone to blame. Following the chain of cause and effect after a disaster is standard procedure. An earthquake is an earthquake, but it would be irresponsible not to hunt for the causes of the 2010 San Bruno Holocaust that burned people alive and destroyed nearly 50 homes. "Bravo" to Franzen for having the courage and intelligence to examine life and share it creatively.
The healthiest people are evolving, not static. They are conscious of social Darwinism, willing to peer behind all curtains, including those of family tabu and political intrique, and, possibly, to uncover answers rather than mindlessly preserving toxic legacy. Instead of fearing exploration, the healthiest among us are eager for literature that sheds new light on the human condition.
Indeed, the best literature holds up a mirror to mankind from different angles so that we get a more complete picture of ourselves and, perhaps, a glimpse of our blind spots. What we know we don't know is dwarfed by what we don't know we don't know. FREEDOM stands up to this test. People who prefer more lyrical prose can read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but FREEDOM's issues are current and penetrating.
Jonathan Franzen is far from the first writer to examine the flaws of family. Old Testament Bible scripture is rich with examples of family malfunction. Sophocles' OEDIPUS REX is another ancient example. Eugene O'Neill ruined his health spilling his guts onto the stage to expose the toxic effects of maternal drug abuse in A LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. He didn't win a Nobel Prize and an unparalleled four pulitzer prizes because the world thought he was looking for excuses. In EAST OF EDEN, Steinbeck did a masterful job of exposing family failings, as did Leo Tolstoy with ANNA KARENINA and Thomas Wolfe in LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL. Films like REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE also subject the family to healing examination. The critical study of family is endemic to literature, stage and film.
Perhaps the strongest evidence that FREEDOM is an important book is the attention it's getting--both positive and negative. If it were an unimportant book, the literati would simply ignore it. Why it is an important book will become more clear over time.
The criticism that FREEDOM's characters are everyday people leading mediocre lives misses, I believe, an important point of the novel and perhaps a clue to the book's importance. Franzen has hit a marketing "sweet spot," featuring characters with whom a large number of book-buying contemporary Americans can identify. Their issues, while appearing mediocre to some, are nonetheless important issues of our real, besieged and disappearing middle-class. Sometimes bluntly and painfully Franzen holds up the mirror, and we are seeing parts of ourselves for the first time. Apparently, many people find this far more appealing than the gross oversupply of distracting escapist action superheros, titillation and fantasy, on the one hand, and the psycho-drama, slaughter and criminal intrigue of THE GODFATHER and such on the other.
Raymond Carver is still raked over the coals by the literary elitists who disdain the realities of blue-collar life as banal and uninteresting "dirty realism." Franzen apparently enjoys a similar disdain in the middle-class realm. Thankfully, the literary elite don't buy many books.
All genres have their place. What I most admire are writers who go for it with realistic fiction rather than entertaining me with escapism and idealism. The America I knew as a child no longer exists, and I'm not happy about where we've ended up or where we're headed. Our disappearing middle class has been under attack for decades by the ultra-radical political right who have camouflaged themselves under the title of "Conservative" and hijacked the Republican Party. America may be a bright and wonderful place for the privileged few beneficiaries of corporate contamination of the political process, but for the vast majority of us on whose backs this utopia for the wealthy has been erected, the picture is far from bright. We won't find solutions by burying our heads in the sand. I'd like more writers to look for answers and tell what they find. Perhaps together we can find paths toward a brighter tomorrow.
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