Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

One of my problems with reading contemporary fiction is that it’s easy to be too affected by the reviews and the general reception a book is receiving – I’ll read the book, but resist buying into the praise it’s been receiving. So I wonder if my thoughts on Freedom would be different if it weren’t for the wide attention, the positive reviews in the Times, the Picoult/Weiner uproar, the Oprah selection.

Freedom is, of course, Franzen’s first novel since 2001’s The Corrections, and as such it’s not surprising that it received the amount of attention it did. The novel follows members of the middle-class Berglund family, mainly Patty and Walter Berglund and their son Joey. (Their daughter Jessica’s voice is notably absent from much of the novel.) Franzen’s characters work in and through 9/11, the Iraq War, and a growing awareness of impending environmental disaster.

I think Franzen is a skilled writer. His prose isn’t showy, but neither is it overly workmanlike; he strikes a nice balance between florid and bare writing. That said, there was something about the book that I felt was lacking. In part there was a sameness of voice throughout. Much of the novel is composed of Patty Berglund’s diary, but the diary is written in the third person and in a voice nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the novel. It’s only when she makes reference to “the autobiographer,” as in, “…which the autobiographer fears her reader won’t want to hear about but which she will mention anyway,” that I remember whose story I’m reading.

Over at the Reading Ape there is a great review of Freedom exploring, in part, this issue of the similarity of voices throughout the novel, and the trouble Franzen has writing women. I see some of the same problems with their son Joey’s voice: Joey may be about my age, but when I read him I see a little Walter Berglund, with more interest in money and politics that are farther to the right, but at heart not the voice of a 20-something college student.

Joey, is followed most heavily during his early college years. He’s so precocious as to absolve the need to write the voice of an average 20-year-old, and Franzen occasionally slips up in a way that makes me wonder if he’s capable of writing such a voice.

That said, the book is good. At heart, the characters seem trying to find what sort of person they are and how that person should be labeled, as when Joey retrieves the wedding ring he accidentally swallowed:

…when he emerged from the bathroom…he was a different person. He could see this person so clearly, it was like standing outside himself. He was the person who’d handled his own shit to get his wedding ring back. This wasn’t the person he’d thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he’d been free to choose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual definite someone, rather than a collection of contradictory potential someones.

It’s the attempt to seek that defining aspect of themselves that resides beneath Freedom‘s plot. Despite the book’s title, the characters don’t seem so much free as free to explore what they inevitably are. Patty and Walter’s relationship has an air of not-quite-rightness, but although they and others sometimes realize this imperfect fit, it seems impossible that they should not be together. Their relationship, as so many other aspects of their lives, is not a choice but something that just is.

From Wikipedia

Freedom is probably one of the best books I’ve read this year, but it’s one with which I have a lot of problems. There is nothing about the story so distinctive that I’m sure I’ll remember it a year or even a month from now, but maybe that’s how it’s meant to be; Franzen writes about the fairly average couplings and breakings of a family’s life, and although he may approximate the lives of a certain class of Americans, there is nothing of real distinction in the lives of middle-class Americans who lack the freedom to escape their characters and their pasts and remake themselves as they dream of being. Rather, they are able mostly to circle the facts of their lives and what those facts say about them as people.

I wonder if my lukewarm feelings for this novel aren’t due in part to the situation in which I’m reading it. I’m a middle-class American (albeit not one who has ever earned $8000 a month, let alone on a summer job as Joey does), but given where I am now, I find it hard to worry over the lives, the minor hurts and inability to achieve full selfhood (or something) of, well, middle-class Americans. Coming home to read this book after a day spent at school and, for one period a day, helping an illiterate third-grader to write in English, overwhelmingly aware of the futility of this work and that in an ideal world I would be teaching her the Albanian alphabet rather than the English one, I found it hard to get rid of the “Who gives a shit, really?” running through my head at parts of the novel. In some ways the Berglunds’ story and their attempts to learn, as Joey does, who they really are, is similar to my own story, but faced with the thought of a girl who will grow up in a poor economy, unable to read, as a minority in a country still learning to deal with minorities despite long experience, I found it hard to care.

Classic Read: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned

From Wikipedia

Continuing my breathless rediscovery of “classics” as a means of avoiding studying for the GRE, I’ve finally made it through The Beautiful and Damned, the one (complete)* Fitzgerald novel I’d disregarded till now.

The novel is about Anthony Patch: his early life, briefly, his meeting and marriage to Gloria, and their subsequent decline. I believe that the length of time for which Patch holds an occupation, excluding the year he’s drafted into the army, amounts to less than a month, all told, and Anthony and Gloria largely drift through life, both becoming increasingly and alarmingly dependent on alcohol.

Anthony is the grandson of Adam Patch, a millionaire whose fortune he expects to inherit. Both Anthony and Gloria, a great beauty, glide through their youths on what they have (Gloria’s looks) and what they imagine they will soon have (Anthony’s money). These possessions have fostered a remarkable degree of irresponsibility in both; throughout the novel, they don’t so much make decisions or do things as they allow things to happen to them. History rolls over the pair, and while they might brush against it – as when Anthony is drafted, only to have the war end shortly before he is to ship out – they effectively avoid becoming a part of it.

Much of their lives, in fact, are spent in longing for what is past. Early in his acquaintance with Gloria, Anthony:

wanted fiercely to paint her, to set her down now, as she was, as, as with each relentless second she could never be again.

And then, later, while visiting General Lee’s house with Gloria, he asks:

“Don’t you want to preserve old things?”

“But you can’t, Anthony. Beautiful things grow to a certain height and then they fail and fade off, breathing out memories as they decay. And just as any period decays in our minds, the things of that period should decay too, and in that way they’re preserved for a while in the few hearts like mine that react to them….”

An especially interesting quote given Gloria’s reaction to her own aging as she hits 30 near the novel’s close. Do aging, decaying people “breathe out” memories in the same way that Gloria says other beautiful things do?

Early in the novel, when Anthony and Gloria are in love, when they are both young, it’s easy to see their indecisiveness as something that will shift off gradually with time; but as the years pass and it remains, as their bank account dwindles and their real estate holdings fall progressively down market, as they continue not to make the decisions they need to make regarding work and money, all I wanted was to grab the pair and shake them. If they’re meant to be a portrait of a society, they’re a portrait of a society that’s lost the ability to make the hard decisions, to accept life as something that is not always beautiful and not always still, to view the world as something other than a stage set for its own meanderings.

At one point in the novel Gloria says, “I don’t care about truth. I want some happiness.” And it’s this sense that pervades the whole. Neither Anthony nor Gloria wants to see behind things; they just want the pleasurable surface. The problem, of course, is that with time this stance shifts from being the kind of youthful statement worth humoring, like Anthony’s belief that it’s better to have no profession than to lower himself to the jobs his fellows are entering into, to one that only evokes pity or disgust from their former friends. The two don’t so much stand still in time as they exist outside of it, like Gloria’s wish “to exist only as a conscious flower, prolonging and preserving itself.”

While I read this, I kept thinking of the articles, like the New York Times’s “What Is It About 20-Somethings?”, propounding that today’s 20-somethings seem incapable of growing up and moving past adolescence into the markers of adulthood, like holding a steady job, marrying, and having children.** Haven’t these reporters read The Beautiful and Damned? Anthony and Gloria make fine examples for this currently popular subject of handwringing.

Read it: The Beautiful and Damned at Project Gutenberg

* That is to say, except for The Last Tycoon, which I exclude because it’s not complete and I maintain my distrust of unfinished work, not to say I didn’t read Nabokov’s last or won’t read David Foster Wallace’s.

** Nearing my 25th birthday and being unmarried, without children, and with the sort of “temporary employment” (the Peace Corps) that is reportedly so attractive to my fellow post-adolescents, I have a vested interest in finding that my way of life is a totally normal and acceptable one, although Anthony & Gloria may not be the best example for this.

Classic (Re)read: Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

High school reading remains, for me, a blur of poor attitude and disinterest. I may have trudged through each and every assignment and performed admirably on the exams and occasional paper, but that doesn’t mean I remember anything about the books or viewed the reading of them as anything other than the bullshit drudge work typical of my teachers, so intent on distracting me from my real work of becoming a famous author.* It wasn’t until a reread that books and plays like The Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse Five and Macbeth became palatable to me.

From Wikipedia

I just finished rereading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. My high school memories of reading this book are pretty clear, as it was around this time that I hit my low point, attitude-wise. (I had probably just gotten my college acceptances.) My thoughts on the book were, and I apologize if you have until now remained unaware of the book’s ending, “I read this whole fucking book and all she does is go out swimming and drown herself? Why didn’t she do that a hundred pages ago? Jesus Christ!”

I think the plot of this novella is pretty well known, but a brief recap: Edna Pontellier is a wife and mother in New Orleans who increasingly desires her own freedom, and who isn’t able to reconcile her changing views on the role and needs of women with those of society.

As with so many books, this one was better the second time around. I found Chopin’s style fairly workmanlike, and sometimes she states things too clearly rather than trusting them to the reader. But this reading, I thought the development of the story and the sometimes minor ways in which Edna tries to remove herself from her husband’s realm and to gain agency over her own life were well done. And looking back on the passages I marked from the novella’s start, a degree of foreshadowing is evident. On a reread, the close to Edna’s story seems inevitable: she can’t extricate herself from society and its rules governing the conduct of women and remain whole, but nor can she remain in that society once she has begun to see past it.

Early in the novella Chopin writes:

The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

Then, at the end:

The water was deep, but she lifted her white body and reached out with a long, sweeping stroke. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

The repetition is really interesting to me in a few ways. For one, it is almost as though the novella is a circle, that at the end it returns to its beginning. And when reading the second quote, I’d expect to see “…enfolding her body in its soft, close embrace.” But by referring to Edna’s body as “the body,” it’s almost like Chopin is moving her onto another plane, signaling that her body is representative of a whole class of female bodies. This isn’t, she suggests, the story of just one woman.

The Awakening was well worth a reread. I also read the accompanying stories (I am pretty sure 17-year-old Me skipped those) and thought some of them, especially “Ma’ame Pelagie” and “Beyond the Bayou” were well-crafted. A lot of her stories deal with conflicts between, say, memory and the present day, or different cultural groups, or the self vs. the larger culture.

In “Ma’ame Pelagie,” for instance, the title character literally lives in the shadow of her ruined home, in the shadow of her memories of better days. At story’s close the home is reawakened, restored, brought into the present day, by Ma’ame Pelagie’s brother and his daughter, but it seems to be too late for Pelagie. When she first meets her niece, La Petite, she “…looked into her eyes with a searching gaze, which seemed to seek a likeness of the past in the living present.” The present is only of interest to her as it might hold a key or likeness to the past.

In “Desiree’s Baby” Chopin shows the lengths to which some people are willing to go to remove themselves from their own pasts, even at the expense of the people they love in their present.

And then, in “A Pair of Silk Stockings,” she shows how the main character, Mrs. Sommers, “lives” in her past for a day, when she gets $15 and buys only those inessential items that have the “feel” of her past and bring her back to the “better days” her neighbors speak of her having once had. At story’s close Chopin hints at the danger in this as a passenger on a cable car sees in Mrs. Sommers “…a poignant wish, a powerful longing that the cable car would never stop anywhere, but go on and on with her forever.” Chopin shows how easy it is to become caught in the past, to fail to live in the present.

I don’t think that all the stories hold up to The Awakening in terms of quality, but to see how Chopin explores similar themes in her stories is interesting after finishing the novella. This goes to prove, I guess, that 17-year-olds do not always know what’s best, or best for them, and that even books we once dismissed as not worth our time are, well…worth our time.

Read it: The Awakening at Project Gutenberg

* That went well for me, if by “becoming a famous author” I actually mean “earning $200 a month, not from my writing.”

Long-Delayed Read: A Passage to India

I recently registered for the GRE Subject Exam for Literature in English,* which means that I sometimes am making flashcards on Restoration comedies and their authors, but more often am reading and trying to defend my leisure time reading from accusations that I should be studying for the exam. (I should be studying for the exam, though.) One way I’m doing this is by reading works that may show up on the exam. Surely the least efficient use of my study time is to read an entire novel on which there may be one or two questions, but if I am reading said novel during my free time, such a selection is admirable and defensible, as reading A Passage to India will undoubtedly be more useful to me come November 13th than Jeff Long’s (pretty excellent) The Descent.

From Wikipedia

The happy result of this is that I’ve finally cleared up a long-standing gap in my reading history: the aforementioned A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster. I’ve read A Room with a View, Where Angels Fear to Tread, Howards End, before – even reread all of them – but this one has for some reason been left out for years.

Sometimes when I think I should read a book, I find myself incapable of doing so. I’ve started to read A Passage to India countless times before, but never made it past the first one or two chapters. This time, though, something landed right – and what a book. At times, I felt that the land of India itself is its own character, in the ways that it influences characters’ actions, pulling them together or pushing them away from each other.

The book’s plot is simple enough to describe. An Englishwoman, Adela Quested, visits India with Mrs. Moore, the mother of the man she may marry. Dr. Aziz, a Muslim physician, takes them on a trip to see the Marabar caves. Adela accuses Dr. Aziz of trying to rape her in one of the caves, and the case goes to trial.

Forster imagines place so strongly. The Marabar caves, for instance, often seem to be watching over the action of the novel as a whole. They are nearly always there, visible, the region’s only notable landmark. And, early in the novel, see how he describes Dr. Aziz’s passage into the English section of town:

As he entered their arid tidiness, depression suddenly seized him. The roads, named after victorious generals and intersecting at right angles, were symbolic of the net Great Britain had thrown over India. He felt caught in their meshes.

And shortly thereafter, as Dr. Aziz begins to walk (his bicycle tire having busted and no tongas – horse-drawn taxis – being available), the description of the land:

There is something hostile in that soil. It either yields, and the foot sinks into a depression, or else is unexpectedly rigid and sharp, pressing stones or crystals against the tread.

Throughout, there’s this sense of a failed effort to impose order on a land that won’t yield to that order – or yields too much. Forster’s description of the land, above, echoes in many ways his descriptions of certain Indian characters and their interactions with the British people they work with. As Adela Quested and her betrothed, Ronny, try to identify a bird, Forster writes:

But nothing in India is identifiable, the mere asking of a question causes it to disappear or to merge in something else.

There’s this sense of something you can’t quite grasp running through much of the novel. It applies to the land itself, to the often indefinable relations between the book’s British and Indian characters, and the events in the Marabar caves. And Forster, to his credit, doesn’t try to make any of these things understandable: rather, he shows the ways in which they so frequently are not.

The incident at the Marabar caves, on which the plot centers, takes place at the rough center of the book, with the shadow of those caves spreading forth over the novel in either direction. What happens in the caves is of secondary importance to other things, though: the ways in which characters related before the event, the manner in which it is reported and dealt with, and how the book’s characters choose to view one another following Adela’s accusations. Again, Forster’s descriptions of the landscape echo the novel’s events; much as the purported attempted rape in the cave will color the rest of Aziz’s life, the caves themselves dominate the landscape:

It was the last moment of the light, and as he gazed at the Marabar Hills they seemed to move graciously towards him like a queen, and their charm became the sky’s. At the moment they vanished they were everywhere, the cool benediction of the night descended, the stars sparkled, and the whole universe was a hill.

In many ways, Forster’s characters seem unable to control the direction of their own lives or actions. After Adela accuses Dr. Aziz of attempting to rape her, she has a persistent “echo” in her head, which she can’t rid herself of; and it seems that it’s this “echo” more than her own will that guides her actions in the time leading up to the trial. Likewise, characters’ attempts to cross over the boundaries drawn between British and Indian inevitably find themselves unable to do so, or to do so for long. Dr. Aziz and an Englishman, Cyril Fielding, develop a friendship that proves unsustainable. Fielding will, at the end of the day, inevitably remain an Englishman, with all the loyalties that his heritage demands. Forster writes that the English (and their predecessors) “…entered the country with intent to refashion it, but were in the end worked into its pattern and covered with its dust.” In this world, the intentions of characters matter little, as they are all in time overmastered by the land.

I didn’t expect Forster to provide any easy answers to the issues he raises – to how we rule, and submit to, one another; to how our attempts to “know” other countries are simply another form of colonialism; of how the agency we believe we have at times proves an illusion – and he doesn’t. The book ends on a note befitting its tone throughout, but this being a review of sorts I won’t go farther.

It’s a rainy day, and I’m planning to watch the film of A Passage to India a little later, for sake of comparison – but also, I’m not quite ready to let the book go. And out of curiosity, to the rare person who stumbles across this blog: have you recently read any “classics” – particularly any you’ve been putting off reading? And why do you delay reading books, even – or especially – ones by authors you love?

* I have helpfully included a link to the test registration page, so you too may may take this fine examination.

Writing While Reading
September 10, 2010, 3:04 pm
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Certain things about working in a school, watching students study with English textbooks designed for writing, drawing and coloring in, in which they are not allowed to write, draw or color, get you thinking about the physical aspects of reading and, more broadly, books.

Students, of course, write in their English books. They take the stickers from the back of the book and put them in their proper places. Now that we are at the start of a new school year, students are supposed to erase all the answers penciled in by last year’s fourth graders; I suspect that more than a few of them won’t do this.

When I was growing up, I treated books like sacred objects. I was careful not to crack their spines; I never wrote in them; I would sooner use a five-dollar bill or a piece of toilet paper as a bookmark than dog-ear a page.

Vladimir Nabokov, who lived and completed his ...

Image via Wikipedia

Now, though, writing in books is one of the most pleasurable aspects of reading for me. Last year my mother mailed my copy of my favorite book, Ada by Vladimir Nabokov, to me, along with a few of his other books. Ada in particular has been so overtaken by notes, stickers, underlines, circlings of favorite or auspicious-seeming words, that I’ll never be able to loan it out; nor will I leave it behind in the Peace Corps library, for other volunteers, when I go home in a year. My history of reading Ada is contained in that book’s pages, and while I may buy a new copy one day so I can “start fresh,” I don’t want to lose the memory of my first, second, third times reading the book.

There’s something valuable in being able to track your own progress through a book. To see a giant question mark scrawled next to something I didn’t understand on first reading marks the necessity of rereading certain books. Nabokov, for example… I can’t begin to understand one of his books until I’ve read it twice, owing to the nature of his style and construction, the ways in which he plays with the time of the reader and the time of the book through his construction of the narrative.

Having until only four or five years ago been someone who wouldn’t dream of writing in a book, I find this shift kind of interesting. I mean, one of the things I don’t like about my kindle is that although you can take notes and underline passages, you can’t pick up a favorite book, flip through it until you hit an underlined sentence or a dog-eared page. Isn’t there something valuable in the visible memory of our reading histories? And even in glimpsing someone else’s history – buying a used book and trying to work out someone else’s notes, favorite sentences? Sometimes frustrating to discover you’ve inadvertently bought a marked-up copy, but sometimes you get something like my copy of Of Mice and Men, with every curse word scribbled out (a few times so hard the pencil went through the page) and with a suggested replacement written in the margins.

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