May 3, 2016
Jonathan Franzen in Womanland
Posted on Sep 30, 2010
I wouldn’t do the book justice by giving merely a few snippets; it’s the webbing that makes this novel, the accrual of life experiences within each character and the tangles of interconnections. A plot and character summary only gives hints: Athletic, competitive Patty, the core of the book, marries kind, generous Walter despite not feeling passion for him, but she needs to feel his belief that she, too, is “good.” She needs that mirror, even if she knows it’s distorted. The object of her sexual passion is Richard, the sexy alt-rock star who is Walter’s friend and is distinctly not good, except in recognizing Walter’s goodness and trying to protect it. Walter himself finally cracks and late in the novel calls himself “vile.” Patty loves their son Joey too much and drives him away. … But this is gliding across the surface.
The social commentary also accrues, and not so much by political references, though the novel spoofs well-meaning liberals (we of the “angry Prius”) and touches on Iraq and Afghanistan. The story asks questions about life, liberty and the pursuit of personal happiness as “freedom.” Sure, we have the freedom to bury our heads in the sand—but should we? Is ignorance bliss? Must we be bound to address the problems of the society we have created, our own little cage?
By the end of the book, Walter, an environmentalist and earnest political activist, just wants to run away from the results of his own life choices that have not been quite so politically or morally correct. In the final precipitating event of the novel, he receives “two mailings” with wrenching personal significance (I won’t say more) that demand a response but that he shoves in a drawer. “In these two mailings, as in the newspaper headlines that he couldn’t avoid reading when he went to buy groceries in Fen City—new crises at home and abroad, new right-wing crazies spewing lies, new ecological disasters unfolding in the global endgame—he could feel the outside world closing in on him, demanding his consideration, but as long as he stayed by himself in the woods he was able to remain true to his refusal.”
I don’t quite know how to say this, but to me the darkest feeling in reading the book came from its tone—smooth, easy, palatable, almost polite—in juxtaposition to the time, the themes and the lives of the upwardly mobile, liberal white characters. The book reads very quickly. No knotty denseness here. Nothing too difficult on the surface. The tone is the zeitgeist of the book and captures the culture. The tone can be described as Joey describes his mother’s private revelations of her secrets to him: “like candy laced with arsenic.”
At the Herbst Theatre event in San Francisco, a woman in the long book-signing line said that although a friend had described the novel by saying, “Yeah, it’s ‘the great American novel’ for white, middle-class, heterosexual males,” she herself thought it “fantastic.” She wondered how Franzen wrote so well from a woman’s point of view, an observation that others also have made. How did he enter “Womanland,” to use a term coined by Joey, the son in “Freedom”?
What novelists do is create and inhabit people different from themselves. A novelist might not have been on death row, but she sure as hell knows what it feels like to be trapped and enraged or defeated or framed, as we all do. How to write a psychopath? Take the part of yourself that was so hurt that it doesn’t want to feel at all, and amp it up, a lot. There you have it. We all have it.
In this way, novelists of all kinds reveal that people really aren’t that different from each other, not at core.
We receive this gift when our society welcomes writers from different perspectives and life experience, whether gender, ethnicity, geography, sexuality or any other distinction. We need all kinds of fictional approaches. Fiction opens eyes. It helps create justice. Imagine the world without Harriet Beecher Stowe’s popular “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook,” Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” John Rechy’s “City of Night” … or the female-authored and highly popular “To Kill a Mockingbird” with its heroine girl that inspired generations, and, recently, the Harry Potter novels, leading millions of young people away from the TV and Internet and into the pages of books. Fantasy is necessary: It has helped many a child to imagine something beyond her or his current situation. The presence of fiction can be a lifeline.
Through fiction, we see “the other” and then, through fictional technique, can know “the other” as ourselves. Fiction in all forms—novel, movie, play, whatever—lets us enter a character’s experiences as if they’re our own and really feel this other person, really see from his or her perspective. Fiction writers specialize in empathy.
More than most authors, Franzen has written and talked about the question of why people read serious fiction—“the ten thousand dollar question,” he said in the Herbst event.
He referred to his 1996 Harper’s Magazine piece, which appears in revised form as the essay “Why Bother” in his book “How to Be Alone.” In that article, he defined depression as “an overwhelming estrangement from humanity” and quoted Flannery O’Connor: “The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.”
Here’s to all the Gray Ladies and Men, and all of us, broadening our experience.
Cherilyn Parsons is a writer who lives in Berkeley, Calif.
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