Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Franzen’s New Novel

Posted in Books,Fiction by bourdaghs on the September 8th, 2010

Like you, I’m currently reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. (You are, aren’t you?). I have to reserve judgment on the novel as a whole until I finish reading it–and I’m a sssslllloooowwww reader these days–but in general you can color me impressed. As he did in The Corrections, Franzen presents a painfully life-like portrait of what Elvis Costello a couple of decades ago called “emotional fascism.” That is, he draws a finely detailed topographical map of the decline of American democracy, all as lived out in the privates lives of our psyches and families.

His choice of my hometown, the Twin Cities, for the opening scenes seems prescient, too. What’s happened to Minnesota over the past three decades presents in distilled form the effects of Reaganism, consumerism, and religious fundamentalism. Back in the 1970s the state was celebrated as the “Minnesota Miracle,” a bastion of progressive values and a can-do spirit, but now our bridges fall down, our schools disintegrate, and our families work two and three jobs so that we can cut taxes on the wealthy, buy incredibly cheap underwear made in Guatemala, and prevent gay people from marrying.

The following paragraph, from a therapeutic autobiography written by the heroine Patty as she looks back over the wreckage of her life, captures the novel’s central theme:

  • Where did the self-pity come from? The inordinate volume of it? By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free. (p. 181)
  • That’s about as succinct a depiction of emotional fascism as you’ll find anywhere.

    So I like Franzen’s choice of setting. But I’m also gnawed at by the sense that he gets the external details wrong: the texture of daily life in St. Paul just doesn’t jibe with my own memories. It’s a bit like that typical scene in parallel-universe science fiction when the hero starts noticing little slips in the world around him and starts to wake from the illusion and realize that he has left home far behind.

    For example, the depiction of the Ramsey Hill neighborhood of St. Paul. Granted, I didn’t live there in the 1990s, but the portrait of the neighborhood just feels off. For starters, the renovation of that neighborhood largely took place in the 1970s and 80s, not the 1990s. Moreover, the kinds of municipal corruption and street life he depicts for it sound East Coast to me (or perhaps Chicagoan); we had corruption and crime in St. Paul, but it wasn’t of the genus that he depicts. Likewise, the scene set circa 1980 at the Longhorn, the legendary bar in downtown Minneapolis that spawned the Suicide Commandos, the Replacements, and a hundred other punk bands, is all wrong. For starters, Mohawks and safety pins weren’t the fashion of Minnesota punks, nor was pogo dancing a big deal. And I never ever saw a crowd at the Longhorn pack the front of the stage for a local opening band: for better or worse, that just wouldn’t have been cool. In sum, I’m pretty sure Franzen never set foot in the place.

    A couple of his major characters attend Macalester College in the late 1970s and early 1980s–as did I. I probably passed them in the dorm hallways and at Kagan Commons cafeteria. But they do and say the wrong things. One of them, for example, wants to find out where the “townie girls” hang out. I’m sure that expression was never used at Mac; the closest thing would have been “St. Kate’s girls,” referring to the Catholic women’s college a mile away, but even that meant something quite different from “townie girls” as Franzen’s fictional character uses it.

    So what do you do when your knowledge of reality interferes with your enjoyment of the dream of fiction? I guess you sit down and write whiny blog posts….

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