Claudia Moscovici

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: The WOW! Factor in Contemporary Fiction

You probably already know about him. Time Magazine has recently published his picture on its cover, calling him the “Great American Novelist.” I have just finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, and my visceral reaction was: WOW! Which led me to think about the importance of the WOW! factor: not just in Franzen’s novel, but in contemporary fiction in general.

Let me preface my remarks by stating the obvious: it’s not easy to publish literary fiction in this country. Literary fiction writers like Jonathan Franzen, Wally Lamb, Jeffrey Eugenides and a handful of others have to compete in the publishing world with brand name authors: political personages like Sarah Palin or pop celebrities like Madonna, who generate controversy and attract media coverage, which in turn boosts book sales. They also compete with genre fiction writers, such as Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, who provide entertainment for the general public. But literary fiction also remains, above all, an aesthetic genre. At its best, it delivers strong characterizations, an individual style—as unique as the fingerprints of its authors—psychological depth, cohesive, well-balanced structures and outstanding plots, full of twists and surprises.

Furthermore, literary fiction is not easily digestible: it requires a lot of patience, thought and, since such novels probe into our natures and motivations, a not always pleasurable introspection.  Which is perhaps why –along with poetry and independent films–literary fiction tends to get great critical reviews but doesn’t usually sell well. So when an author manages to write literary fiction that is top-notch quality and appeals to the general public, the only way I can explain this magic is through that je ne sais quoi, the WOW! factor.

Granted, Jonathan Franzen had a lot going for him: Ophrah’s attention (the mere presence in Oprah’s Book  Club makes any book sell well); an outstanding literary agent (Susan Golomb) and the support of a publisher who is known for publishing top literary fiction (Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux). But talking about all of this “cultural capital” in Franzen’s corner really begs the question. Because his new novel wasn’t chosen at random: it really deserves  the endorsements it gets.

Freedom is, first of all, a family epic. It traces the lives of two generations of Americans: Patty and Walter Berglund and their children, Joey and Jessica. The novel offers a masterful sketch of two eras in American culture, not just the portrait of a family. For additional interest and spice, there’s the drama and tension of a love triangle. Patty becomes infatuated with her husband’s best friend, the renegade musician, Richard Katz. In its vivid portrayals of the love story between Patty and Walter and the affair between Patty and Richard, Freedom shows us the difference between infatuation—with its long-term obsessions and explosive, but short-lived sexual excitement–and love, with its combination of loyalty, disappointment and real-life challenges.

The novel’s tension is maintained not just by the drama of the plot, but also by the depth and balance of its characterizations. The main characters function as each other’s foils: the moral, straight-laced Walter is a foil for Richard, the egotistic musician, whose outlook reminds me of Ivan’s famous saying in The Brothers Karamazov: But it has always happened that the more I hate men individually the more I love humanity.” Similarly, Patty, the competitive housewife prone to depression is counterbalanced by her pragmatic, even-keeled daughter, Jessica. Finally, the doting, self-effacing neighbor’s daughter, Connie, functions as the perfect complement and foil to the outgoing and self-confident Joey. Their youthful love story reveals the symbiotic relationship between idolizer and idol, which could prompt analyses of the workings of narcissism and co-dependency, but which also remains more touching and unique than popular psychology. The characterizations in this novel are so compelling that it’s as if the author immersed himself into mindset of each character, a process reminiscent of Flaubert’s saying, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” Which brings me to my initial point: Freedom definitely captures the WOW! factor. For me, the WOW! factor happens when a writer  appeals to  the greatest number of readers without sacrificing anything in quality (characterization, plot, structure or style).

As a novelist and literary critic, I’ve been an avid reader of contemporary fiction for many years. Novels like Franzen’s Freedom, which magically combine mass appeal with aesthetic qualities, remind me of why if you make it as a novelist in the U.S., you make it internationally.  To keep afloat in a very competitive and rapidly changing environment, American publishers demand  mass appeal  from all of their  writers.  Meeting the highest aesthetic standards, as Franzen’s Freedom does, is just an added bonus:  that unforgettable and unmistakable WOW! factor.

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

November 10, 2010 Posted by | book review, book review of Freedom, book review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, Claudia Moscovici, Freedom: A Novel, Jonathan Franzen, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: The WOW! Factor in Contemporary Fiction