Election campaigns are roiling American airwaves at the moment and will for the next several days. I am still surprised when I overhear a talk show host explain, from a co-worker’s radio, that the reason people from the other side disagree with him is, literally: “They hate America.” He repeats the mantra several times for emphasis. One politician cheats during a debate, another has to assure potential voters that she is not a witch, and an unhealthy minority of Americans think the President of the United States is not really an American. All of this is why I generally prefer novelistic fiction to the fantasy world that is, and likely always has been, American politics.
I have recently learned of Poe’s Law. Essentially, the “law” states that when a fundamentalist (religious, political, trekkie, etc.) reaches a certain point of wackiness, it becomes impossible to distinguish between a fundamentalist and a parody of the fundamentalist. Franzen seems to have run into Poe’s Law with this book. It is difficult to tell at points in Freedom whether he is in earnest or whether he is trying to parody extreme “right wingers” and/or extreme “lefties”.
I was among those who thought The Corrections was and is overrated. Franzen can churn out some nice prose, he has an admirable vocabulary, but the book seemed too cartoonish and derivative. He managed, for instance, to “pay homage” to South Park by using Mr. Hankey in a way that sucked out all the wit and replaced it with nothing interesting. Poking fun at big-pharma is neither daring nor original. It is better managed in a one-panel New Yorker cartoon than suffused throughout a serious novel. The fish-down-the-pants scene reeked of Seinfeld‘s Kramer. Cartoonish and derivative.
Ostensibly, this is another family drama, this time about the Berglunds. As with The Corrections, all members of the family suffer from dysfunction of some sort. Walter is a bright attorney who worships at the feet of Richard Katz, minor rock legend. His wife, Patty, is extremely competitive, also has a crush on Katz, and settles for Walter. Walter and Patty have a daughter Jessica, who is largely ignored by her parents in favor of Joey, her brother. Jessica is generally ignored by Franzen too, which is no doubt intended.
Patty adores Joey, practically worships him. Unsurprisingly, he becomes a bit self-centered. He has run-ins with his liberal father which leads him to seek outside money sources. A money-making opportunity arises when he creates and then fills a niche market at his girlfriend’s (Connie’s) Catholic school. His products are cheap watches with “chewable-looking” bands into which, after buying a thermo-embedding press, he embeds the text of his customers’ choosing. The school soon forbids the girls to wear watchbands with embedded text. Joey is upset; Walter is unsympathetic.
“It’s not an outrage,” Walter told him. “You were benefiting from an artificial restraint of trade. I didn’t notice you complaining about the rules when they were working in your favor.”
“I made an investment. I took a risk.”
“You were exploiting a loophole, and they closed the loophole. Couldn’t you see that coming?”
“It’s still money I should have had.”
“Joey, making money is not a right. You’re selling junk those girls don’t really need and some of them probably can’t even afford. That’s why Connie’s school has a dress code – to be fair to everybody.”
“Right – everybody but me.”
Joey becomes a Republican.
This exchange highlights a problem I have with Franzen’s Freedom. Walter is an extremely intelligent policy wonk who has, by the time of the above conversation, graduated law school. He should know better than to throw out terms like “artificial restraint of trade” in situations having nothing at all to do with an artificial restraint of trade. If we believe Patty, and we have no reason not to believe her, Walter is far too smart for that sort of mistake.
The “artificial restraint” Walter references was the nuns’ policy of permitting one watch, one ring, and two earrings. No one, not even Joey, was preventing the Catholic school girls from buying those same watchbands from any other retailer. Joey simply recognized and satisfied a demand. The term “restraint of trade”, however, has a very specific legal meaning which Walter, being a lawyer and policy dweeb, would know: “Contracts or combinations which tend or are designed to eliminate or stifle competition, effect a monopoly, artificially maintain prices, or otherwise hamper or obstruct the course of trade and commerce as it would be carried on if left to the control of natural economic forces.” (Black’s Law Dictionary). Franzen goes a step further and has Patty recall Walter using the term “artificial restraint of trade”. This term is unknown to Supreme Court decisions or the SSRN eLibrary (covering law, economics, and other fields) but, apparently, is used very occasionally in economics and more informal discourse (2300 returns from Google, many referencing this book).
The problem here is similar to that I had throughout the book. I find it doubtful that the Walter Franzen has given us would use the term that way, even in the heat of an argument with his son. He would have had to use the term to mean that the nun’s policy regarding jewelry stifled competition in the market for jewelry. The definitions of markets matter a great deal in antitrust and a single private school would never constitute a market, something Walter would know. Setting that pedantically technical point aside, the restriction does not directly benefit Joey. It benefits all sellers of watches and watchbands at the expense of those who sell other types of jewelry and accessories. Joey simply recognized the niche market for watchbands and filled it. Joey was not protected from any other purveyors of watchbands, lettered or not. Walter’s frustrated accusation that Joey did not complain about “the rules” when they worked in his favor entirely misses the mark under any reasonable understanding of economics. And Walter definitely had a thorough understanding of economics.
There is an unreality to Franzen’s work that prevents me investing in the characters. This unreality is both what makes his books work and why I cannot find them sufficiently serious to be much more than entertainment.
Take this scene (SPOILER ALERT) for another example:
“…I told her I had cancer. She didn’t know anything.”
“Are you actually suicidal?” the mother said. “Or was that just a threat to keep your friend from leaving?”
“Mostly a threat,” Eliza said.
“OK, I’m not actually suicidal.”
“An yet you’re aware that we have to take it seriously now,” the mother said. “We have no choice.”
“You know, I think I’m going to go now,” Patty said. “I’ve got class in the morning, so.”
“What kind of cancer did you pretend to have?” the father said. “Where in the body was it situated?”
“I said it was leukemia.”
“In the blood, then. A fictitious cancer in your blood.”
This scene works because it is funny. The scene is funny because the father’s stern inquiry into the location of Eliza’s “fictititious cancer” amidst his daughter’s bizarre obsession, heavy drug use, and suicidal threats is ridiculous. Franzen is at his best when dissecting interpersonal relationships in this way, but the effect is too often that of a punchline rather than an insight.
The scene with Walter and Joey can work, too, with Walter being a bit ridiculous by wielding his greater knowledge of economics dishonestly. Arguments between fathers and sons, particularly those characterized by competition and rebellion, are likely to become ridiculous with both haphazardly throwing whatever projectile is handy. For Walter, it was an arcane term from economics.
Too many of the other pivotal scenes have a similar ridiculousness to them. They are just real enough that the characters seem in earnest, but sufficiently unreal that they seem to be part of a joke. The book is infused with politics, but Freedom is never clear in revealing whether Franzen is trying to parody or to portray “intellectual” lefties who bungle basic economic ideas. Nor can I tell whether he is aiming for reality or satire with his “greedy” righties. The politics is a politics of caricature which does not, in my initial reading, seem to lend much more than humor to the book. I grant that it is difficult to put current politics into a book without sounding a bit foolish yourself, but that is what Franzen chose to attempt. Poe’s Law has frustrated his attempt to make any political points.
There is more to Freedom, including parallels between this work and Age of Innocence and the characters’ obsession with freedom in their relationships. I do not think Franzen achieves for our age what Wharton achieved for hers. Her comedy is brilliant because it is so penetrating. Franzen’s comedy is not brilliant because it obscures more than it reveals. The difference is that between a joke and wit.
[A number of grammatical mistakes have been corrected since the initial post several hours ago. My apologies.]