In the famous, surreal “house of mirrors” scene that resolves the convoluted plot of Orson Welles’ 1947 film “The Lady From Shanghai,” the images of Rita Hayworth and Welles shatter and refract each other. We see each of them from many angles; they’re superimposed; their reflections reflect. Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Freedom,” is like this, but with realism. Instead of Hayworth and Welles facing each other, it’s you, me and American bourgeois culture.

This novel has become a phenomenon beyond its 564 pages. It has launched new dramas: “forgiveness” by Oprah in choosing it for her book club despite Franzen’s snub 10 years ago, when she chose his earlier novel “The Corrections”; his face on the cover of Time magazine, which dubbed him the “Great American Novelist”; the zillion reviews. And, in a contemporary “Mad Men” plot for the literati, righteously angry female professionals—in this case, best-selling women novelists—have been vocally ticked off about how the critical establishment favors male literary writers like Franzen.

“Freedom” really is about something important. But the hubbub also is significant. Why has everyone cared so much? Because fiction matters.

In his nationwide book tour, Franzen has repeatedly addressed the controversy that broke out last month when two best-selling female novelists, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, tweeted loudly (squawked?) that the literary establishment ignores commercial fiction, especially “women’s fiction.” (See hashtag #franzenfreude.) Both regularly appear atop the New York Times best-seller list, but Picoult has been reviewed only three times, all under-thousand-word slams by Janet Maslin. For her seven best-sellers, Weiner has gotten a lot less than that: a grand total of five paragraphs in the Times, also by Maslin.

book cover

Freedom: A Novel

By Jonathan Franzen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 576 pages

Buy the book

It’s true, the Gray Lady and her cohorts don’t have much lipstick in their purses. In an interview on The Huffington Post, Weiner names a slew of male writers, such as Nick Hornby and Carl Hiaasen, who “write what I’d call commercial books, even beach books. … All of them would be considered chick lit writers if they were girls. But they’re not, so they get reviewed. …”

Franzen agrees. In the Q&A during Franzen’s appearance at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco on Sept. 13, a woman in the audience nervously asked that he comment on the issue. He said he hadn’t read Picoult’s work, a statement that drew sniggers from the mostly highbrow audience and that Franzen quickly squelched, adding that he’s seen lots of people reading the work, especially “the book with the umbrellas, very commonly seen on the New York subways.”

He then said he didn’t feel the attack was personally directed at him. But: “To the extent that it was directed at a literary culture that certainly, if you look at a hundred years or 200 years or even 50 years, or maybe even 25 years, or maybe even the present moment, that tends to skew toward critically rewarding a certain mode of male fiction at the expense of equally fine or in many cases much finer writing by women: I agree.”

We all agree. The reviewers themselves generally agree, at least theoretically. Walter, one of the two protagonists in “Freedom,” would agree so strongly that, as a very nice guy and a feminist, he’d probably gladly give the ink spent on him to characters created by female writers.

I did a quick audit of The New York Times in the past six months. During this period, a whopping six books have been described with the word masterpiece by a Times reviewer. All six are by men. Three of them were novels on the Book Review cover (“Matterhorn” by Karl Marlantes, which was about Vietnam; “Death of the Adversary” by Hans Keilson, about the rise of a totalitarian leader in 1930s Germany; and Franzen’s “Freedom”). The fourth was Bao Ninh’s 1991 “The Sorrow of War” (published in the United States in 1995), which was mentioned in a Book Review essay on the 20-year anniversary of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things We Carried.” The fifth was Dominic Lieven’s nonfiction “Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace.” The sixth is “Girl by the Road at Night” by David Rabe on—take a guess—war, though only a particular paragraph was described as a “masterpiece.”

Are men the only authors of masterpieces? Are most masterpieces about war?

I happen to like novels about war, but I’ll also read Picoult. Ironically, Franzen’s “Freedom” is the only one of these “masterpieces” that’s not about war. He writes about that most typically “woman writer” realm, the family.

Certainly there are degrees of quality in fiction, as with anything. Franzen’s literary craftsmanship is superb, not only on a sentence level (flawless) but in his total lack of clichés and his emotional authenticity—incredibly difficult to sustain over 500-plus pages. Not once did I pop out of the dream (the fiction) by becoming aware of the writer trying too hard or not quite hitting the right note. Those hundreds of thousands of sentences and moments then added up to something nuanced and otherwise unsayable about human beings and the world we create. That kind of achievement is extraordinary.

That’s even more the case when the main characters aren’t particularly likeable and when there are only five of them, one family (father, mother, daughter, son) and the bad-boy friend, over the long novel. But they’re so very real, so very human, that you see yourself reflected in them, especially in their screw-ups and thirst to be “a good person” while feeling deep down that they’re not. Who can’t relate to that? 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.”

book cover

Freedom: A Novel

By Jonathan Franzen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 576 pages

Buy the book

Our 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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