Last month, a group of women between the ages of 25 and 35 got together in Los Angeles to talk about Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom. I was one of these women. I loved the idea of getting together to discuss a big book, one that people across the nation were also buying, and reading, and meeting to talk about. It felt like we were participating in a cultural moment–it was like getting a Cabbage Patch Kid in the 1980s. Plus, there would be snacks.
Since the novel is 562 pages, we decided to discuss the book over two meetings–crazy, I know. Because I actually get paid to facilitate a different book club (can you believe that?), I held back from planning questions and discussion points for this new one. I would not let this group become a job. I would not bring a highlighter. However, I did bring one quote, from Garth Risk Hallberg’s review on this very site. To start the meeting off, I read the quote aloud to the others:
It is surely worth mentioning that Franzen writes more persuasively and attentively about the inner life of women than any male American novelist since Henry James.
“Who wrote that?” someone asked.
“What? You don’t think a man can write from a woman’s perspective?”
“Was the reviewer a man or a woman?”
“How does he know?”
“The question isn’t whether a man can write a woman’s perspective, but if Franzen can. Was he successful?”
The responses were mixed to this question. All of us felt Patty Berglund, midway through the novel at least, was a complicated and believable character, but a few of us–myself included–did not buy the conceit of her autobiography. It did not feel as if she had written it; arbitrarily capitalizing words does not render a perspective true! To me it felt half-assed, almost offensive. Why present these words as Patty’s, when they are really the author’s, barely concealing himself? It didn’t seem like a true investigation of a character’s world or her use of language to describe that world.
But I digress. We talked a whole lot about Patty.
“Why did Richard keep saying she was tall? She’s only like 5′ 9″!” (So said our tallest member.)
“Did anyone really imagine her as attractive?”
“When I think female basketball player, I’m unable to imagine a good looking woman.”
What’s interesting to me about an unguided book club is how quickly it dives into content, with only brief exchanges about form. There is analysis, but it’s about the characters. Why did Patty marry Walter? What is the nature of the love between Richard and Walter? What the hell was up with the dirty talk between Joey and Connie? (“That was my favorite part!”) The great fun of these meetings–and perhaps why they’re not particular productive–is that you get to talk about the characters as if they’re real. People describe emotional reactions to the events in the book. They make value judgments. They psychoanalyze the characters–and this inevitably pulls the discussion away from the text. I recall one moment, as we were debating the potential selfishness of the characters, when someone said, “Well, first, we need to define selfishness.” This led us down a thorny but fascinating path, which had little to do with the Berglunds and their problems. In a book club about Freedom, it’s easy to go from a discussion of Walter’s environmentalism to a discussion of overpopulation to a discussion of having babies to a discussion of orgasms to, “What do you think Jonathan Franzen’s lovemaking style is?” No wonder Franzen hemmed and hawed his way to a dis-invitation from Oprah nearly ten years ago! He understood how dangerous a group of women can be.
It turned out, after our first meeting (four hours long, no joke), we were all talked out. Our second meeting was shorter and more subdued. We discussed the ending, and the relative happiness of Patty and Walter. Had anyone changed? Could anyone really change? We discussed the structural and narrative similarities of the first and final sections–was that return to the elevated perspective beautiful, or a cop-out? (My answer? Both.) We talked about whether or not the sections about mountain top removal were sort of interesting or incredibly boring, and how we reacted to real-life details in fiction.
“You think Jonathan Franzen listens to Bright Eyes?”
“Is there a real life version of Richard Katz? I never believed he was actually famous.”
“What the fuck is up with the band name Walnut Surprise?”
“It was so silly!”
“Should have been Walnut Hotel or something.”
“Walnut Surprise sounds sexual, and scatological–like a Joey and Connie thing. Franzen is obsessed with poop.”
In both meetings, we came back to this question of whether or not Freedom is a masterpiece. Why was Jonathan Franzen, out of the many talented and important authors, the anointed one? We all agreed it was pretty great to see a writer on the cover of TIME, but was he truly “the great American novelist”? He is both commercially successful and critically acclaimed, and few can claim that mysterious combination these days. We were saddened, or sobered, by the fact that a woman, at least in the present day, would not be given that title. Everyone agreed with that.
Of course, we spent the last twenty minutes discussing the most important question: “What should we read next?”