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A Quibble With a Magnificent Novel

Franzen gets much right, but gets D.C. neocons wrong

Marc Tracy
August 25, 2010
Jonathan Franzen.(Time)
Jonathan Franzen.(Time)

I come to praise Freedom, not to bury it. Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, which drops next week (though President Obama got a hold of it already), is a wonderful book, one you get lost in and then come out at the other end of with an enriched understanding of your own life.

And Sam Tanenhaus’ review is fantastic in itself—it particularly helped me clarify how I felt about the novel’s haunting, literally breath-taking final section. (It is, granted, almost impossibly rhapsodic—here is a very positive but more measured take.) Tanenhaus is especially perceptive when teasing out all the permutations of the novel’s ambitious (and self-admittedly grandiose) title. He treats its political implications with particular sensitivity—sometimes more than Franzen does himself.

Here is where I step in as the Jewish blogger™ and say that, despite the above, I did have one problem with the novel. While its two most prominent Jewish characters—Patty Berglund, one half of the novel’s central couple, who grew up in a politically prominent Westchester County Jewish home, and the memorable rocker-cum-builder Richard Katz—are as finely drawn as any characters you will find in contemporary American fiction, there is additionally a minor Jewish character who left a distinctly metallic taste in my mouth. (Franzen himself is not Jewish.)

Tanenhaus will cede only that Franzen’s most over-the-top political set-piece “flirts with burlesque.” That set-piece is Thanksgiving dinner (relevantly, in 2001) at the McLean, Va., home of a Jewish neoconservative éminence grise, a D.C. think-tanker who is the father of Jonathan, Joey Berglund’s first-year roommate at the University of Virginia, and also of Jenna, whom Joey pursues. Here’s the scene:

Jonathan and Jenna’s father, at the far end of the table, was holding forth on foreign affairs at such commanding length that, little by little, the other conversations petered out. The turkey-like cords in his neck were more noticeable in the flesh than on TV, and it turned out to be the almost shrunken smallness of his skull that made his white, white smile so prominent. The fact that such a wizened person had sired the amazing Jenna seemed to Joey of a piece with his eminence. He spoke of the “new blood libel” that was circulating in the Arab world, the lie about there having been no Jews in the twin towers on 9/11, and of the need, in times of national emergency, to counter evil lies with benevolent half-truths. He spoke of Plato as if he’d personally received enlightenment at his Athenian feet. He referred to members of the president’s cabinet by their first names, explaining how “we” had been “leaning on” the president to exploit this unique historical moment to resolve an intractable geopolitical deadlock and radically expand the sphere of freedom. In normal times, he said, the great mass of American public opinion was isolationist and know-nothing, but the terrorist attacks had given “us” a golden opportunity, the first since the end of the Cold War, for “the philosopher” (which philosopher, exactly, Joey wasn’t clear on or had missed an earlier reference to) to step in and unite the country behind the mission that his philosophy had revealed as right and necessary. “We have to learn to be comfortable with stretching some facts,” he said, with his smile, to an uncle who had mildly challenged him about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities. “Our modern media are very blurry shadows on the wall, and the philosopher has to be prepared to manipulate these shadows in the service of a greater truth.”

That’s not burlesque; it’s vaudeville.

Reflecting on this scene, though, I realize my beef with it stems from something, believe it or not, even more provincial than my Jewishness. For I don’t think the character’s Jewishness is actually the problem. Rather, I think the blame for this anomalously ham-handed scene lies in Franzen’s curious lack of interest in Washington, D.C., as the policy sausage-grinder. (Which is especially odd when you recall that he wrote a very good profile of then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert in 2003.) Much of the novel is set in D.C., yet Franzen never strays from Georgetown; he is superb on the interplay between culture and politics, but no good on how the political process itself exerts its own, small influence on policy’s finishing touches.

It is difficult to accuse Franzen of overmuch cynicism: not when he is drawing an era during which the former Halliburton CEO actually was the vice president, and the deputy defense secretary actually acknowledged that WMD was agreed upon as the prime rationale for invading another country “for bureaucratic reasons.” The shame is not Franzen’s angry argument; it’s that he for once permitted his anger to get the better of his realist aesthetic, and thereby did both a disservice.

Frankly, this is personal, too. I grew up inside the Beltway (figuratively and literally), and am frequently frustrated by outsiders’ flailing attempts to understand the way that place—which, make no mistake, is a company town through and through—works. On top of that, I am good friends, from home, with the son of one of a couple dozen prominent neoconservatives on whom this figure (who is more of a type than a thinly disguised stand-in) could be based. Perhaps my anecdote is barely more valid than Franzen’s fiction, but my friend’s parent had far more fun and interesting things to talk about at the dinner table than the free market and Israel. And, in person anyway, my friend’s parent is everything Franzen’s character is not: generous, hilarious, courteous. I suspect this is true, moreover, of most of them (though not Dick Cheney, who shot his friend). So, it bothered me.

And it bothered me because Jonathan Franzen’s America is so recognizably our America in so many other places. That is because he is most of the time vigilant about preventing his opinions from over-coloring his depictions. It is a shame that he failed here; the result is a brief jolt that sends the reader to somewhere outside the novel, as though you are watching a masterful actor conspicuously forget a single line.

But that’s my two-cents. That, and: Read this great novel!

Related: Peace and War [NYT Book Review]
The Listener [The New Yorker]

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.