There’s been a lot of conversation around Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom. I haven’t read it, oddly enough I just can’t get that interested in big bourgeois novels at present thanks to a terrible overdose by means of Infinite Jest, the instrument of torture penned by the late David Foster Wallace. I read The Corrections though, when it came out quite some years ago and it was pleasant enough, really good no doubt. I remember reflecting that for thirty five dollars I must have got a hundred hours of recreation out of it, which is an excellent dollar to hour ratio. Very, very efficiently delivered leisure. But it didn’t rock my world, it was distant from me, about a world of which I’ll never be part and thankfully too because while never getting anywhere near contempt The Corrections was not unequivocal about its subject classes.
Infinite Jest doubly so, in both contexts. First rate dollar to recreation ratio, and deeply troubled by the chaos of middle class American lives. Foster Wallace is darker than Franzen, though I understand they were mates, and it probably explains (in some small portion) why David Foster Wallace committed suicide and Franzen is still with us still. The funny and beautiful thing about Infinite Jest was that in that very opener, the prologue, the intro via the college entrance interview everything is there. Everything that the next one thousand pages maps is already captured and tortured right there in the opening scene. Which makes it perfect as an intro, unquestionably, but also rather begs the question why did I read the following one thousand pages?
But I have read all the reviews of Freedom and coming from them was Franzen’s Harper’s essay, which I did read (it being, you know, eight hundred pages shorter). And it was a worthy read too, but it spoke to me not so much of the relevance of the novel but of the way in which there in 1996 or whenever it as in particular the internet was just another leisure activity competing for the recreation dollar but now…maybe it it isn’t? And from that Franzen is writing enormous great telephone book novels as an act of faith: that he is a guy living a life and making a living doing what he does, and that in both of those circumstances novels like The Corrections and Freedom are going to be the outcome.
I remember this buddhist thing where a pilgrim travels for years to ask the holiest monk what the meaning of life is and when he asks him the monk says “life is a fountain” and the pilgrim says “it is?” and the monk puzzled says “isn’t it?”