At the risk of defending Jonathan Franzen more than he deserves -- because really, Freedom has some serious flaws -- I've got to admit that Gabriel Brownstein's thoughtful essay in The Millions got me thinking about the book again. In "The Big Show: Franzen, Goodman and 'The Great American Novel,'" Brownstein compares Freedom and Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector, both critically-acclaimed, thoroughly absorbing social realist novels about affluent families in the big picture of contemporary America. And as he points out, the books really do have some striking similarities, in their concern with national and global politics, with the environment and technology, and with religion, beauty, and art. Brownstein's question is why, given that the novels are so similar, and that they were released in the very same year, was Franzen's considered a Great American Novel and Goodman's "just another good book by Allegra Goodman."
Gender, of course, is a huge, insidious issue, as is marketing (which is never wholly divorced from gender). But putting all of that aside, and going into the books for a moment, I think the real difference is one of authorial attitude. Goodman loves her characters, while Franzen hates them. On the surface this might be victory Goodman. After all, there's probably no more damning charge against a writer than to say he hates his characters -- what right has he to write about them if he doesn't care for them at all? But actually I think Franzen wins here.
Goodman loves her characters, but she loves them a little too much. She wants them to find spiritual contentment and worldly success, much as an affluent parent might want for her children. And, after some pretty major losses and minor but affecting bruises, by and large, they do. It's remarkably satisfying if maybe a little too good to be true. Franzen, on the other hand, spares his characters nothing. They are unhappy people, despairing at the state of the world and loathing themselves at the same time, intelligent but short-sighted, charming but supremely selfish, and generally the kind of people you want to shake out of their foolish behavior. Humiliation abounds in Freedom, much of it self-inflicted. And yet, we stick with these people, hoping for some sort of turnaround, unlikely as we seem to get it. So when it comes (again, after some major losses and minor bruises), the redemption -- impartial, compromised, and incredibly human -- is almost a surprise, and profoundly moving.
Both Franzen and Goodman seem to believe that people are essentially good and worthy of comfort -- but Franzen holds that view rather grudgingly, as though he has too much reason to believe otherwise, but can't help himself in the end. The Great American Novel moniker aside (because, really, what good is it?), both novels strike me as thoroughly American. It's just that Goodman has a little more faith in our country, and Franzen, a little more doubt -- a larger sense of our culpability in the world that we have made.
author of The Violet Hour, reader, prodigious eater of ice cream