Sunday, September 26, 2010

On Freedom and Super Sad True Love Story

Book 82: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Book 83:
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

There are many similarities to these two much-heralded books. Both are savage commentaries on the state of American society. Both authors employ love stories as the framing device in which to unroll their commentary.

And I didn’t like either book much.

Franzen’s Freedom has enjoyed all the accolades that the American media can generate: the author made the cover of Time magazine, Freedom was tabbed as the final Oprah Book Club selection (with all the concomitant prestige and increased sales) and The New York Times proclaims the book “a masterpiece of American fiction.”

Publicity for Shteyngart’s dystopian look at a dying America, set in the immediate future (“oh, let’s say next Tuesday,” proclaims the dust jacket), may be more muted, but is no less enthusiastic.

Yet in the face of this gale of critical acclamation, I have problems with these two novels? Damn, betcha.

Franzen's characters are neither fully formed nor appealing. Four characters share the stage -- Walter and Patty Berglund; their son, Joey; and Walter's college roommate, Richard Katz. (A fourth member of the Berglund family, a daughter, Jessica, is limited to a cameo role.)

For much of the novel they are mere cardboard cut-outs, vessels for Franzenian rants on a range of topics from the current generation’s penchant for wearing flip-flops everywhere to the ecological devastation of coal mining in West Virginia to the dangers of world over-population to the predations of house cats on the American songbird population.

We know from the Time magazine article that Franzen is a bird-watcher. Perhaps he should have limited his concerns to the world’s dwindling bird population. Because the trouble with the rant-a-page approach is that the reader does not where to place our limited supply of outrage. Should I be pissed about house cats on the prowl for songbirds? Environmental devastation in neighboring West Virginia? Or those damn flip-flops?

Franzen is clearly more interested in his extended rants on the state of America than in character development. Unfortunately, his characters are not only stock characters, but unappealing stock characters.

Joey is the prodigal son, who wants to make lots of money and be a member in good standing of the Republican Party. Ignored by her parents, Patty over-compensates with her own children. She's a stay-at-home-mom and that's clearly a poor career choice in Franzen's mind. Patty also desires Richard Katz more than her own husband. Katz is some sort of alt-rocker who can't handle success. And Walter . . . Walter is the rational, do-gooding liberal whose dirty little secret is that he has nothing but contempt for the people he's trying to help. He’s the intellectual who successfully overcame a impoverished background, including an underachieving alcoholic father, and now secretly wonders why others can't do the same.

Two themes run through the book. The first is that people aren't what they seem to be. They're neither as good nor as bad as we might believe them to be. Much of Patty's frustration with Walter, and their marriage, is that Walter believes she's better, nicer, than she knows she really is. Walter doesn't realize that Patty, like Jimmy Carter, has lust in her heart. Patty wants Walter to love her, not Walter’s idealized version of her.

The second theme has to do with freedom -- hence the title. Essentially, Franzen suggests, Americans have too much of it and don't know what to do with what we have. All that freedom has gone to waste.

A lot of reviews describe Freedom as darkly comedic. It is dark, but there's not a lot of humor here -- the satire is laid on too heavily and with too much certainty on the author's part that he knows what's best for us to be even slyly comedic. Comedy depends on the comedian laughing with us, not at us. Franzen, like Walter, doesn't seem to like people much.

Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (hereafter referred to as SSTLS) presents a more sophisticated and prescient satire than Franzen. (Less rant, more thought.) SSTLS recalls some of the early work of William Gibson.

Shteyngart, for example, takes the Blackberry prayer -- our modern tendency to dip the head forward, peering intently toward our lap as we feverishly connect via our increasingly sophisticated mobile phones -- to a logical and scary place where people are always connected to a tiny and ever-present “apparat.” Late in the novel when Americans suddenly find themselves severed from a connection to their “apparat” there are those who find suicide the only acceptable response.

In SSTLS, America is socially, culturally and financially bankrupt. The great American empire has given way to a third world country divided between the haves and have-nots and soon to be divided among the Chinese and the Middle East and other wealthy nations.

Lenny, the protagonist of SSTLS, works for a company that sells life extensions. In this brave new world no one has to die. Actually, no one who is a high net worth individual (HNWI) has to grow old and die. Lenny can’t afford the treatments that will keep him forever young, but does find his own fountain of youth when he falls in love with a Korean woman half his age.

And it’s this love story where Shteyngart goes astray. If his satire is sharper and richer than Franzen’s, his characters are just as wooden. Granted, they’re more appealing – Lenny’s a Jewish schmuck who loves his parents and clings to a collection of real honest-to-God books – but we still don’t care much.

Personally, I think Lenny is better off without his love interest, the boyish Eunice Park, whose betrayal is filled with self-interest. Trust Shteyngart to write an unconventional love story, but conventional love stories work because the reader is rooting for the lovers to get together or to get back together once they've been separated. The idea is that love, not self-interest, prevails.

Franzen and Shteyngart have written interesting books, which is to damn them both with faint praise. It’s the best I can do.

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