Please note: This review contains spoilers.
The most hyped novel in recent memory picks up where Jonathan Franzen always leaves off: with the souring of an upper-middle class Midwestern family. This time we get a guided tour of the last decade per Franzen’s priggish Liberalism, where complacent self-satisfaction turns to bereavement, rage, suffocation, near-constant betrayal, and the faintest glimmer of relief.
Our story unfolds on the backs of the Berglunds of St. Paul. We have the recklessly bored Patty, the resolutely virtuous Walter, and their morally divergent children. Lest you worry that the Berglunds perish in a snowbank, there is one Richard Katz to heat things up. Richard is a college friend of Walter’s and a rocker of the old school. That is to say, he is cliché of womanizing, self-loathing, coke benders, and smirky philosophizing. He’s also a dead-ringer for Muammar el-Qadaffi, so ladies should consider themselves warned. Of course, Katz and Patty succumb to their insistent loins, which leaves Walter free to obsess over corporate and governmental malfeasance, another Franzen motif.
The equally familiar Franzen narration is assisted by Patty, who chimes in as part of her therapy. This does little to establish a character that is, quite frankly, both unconvincing and a bore. It’s hard to believe that the charmingly diffident Patty is a college basketball star, let alone a smug stay-at-home mom who turns into a drunken harridan when she discovers that her son has taken up with the poor girl next door. Part of the problem lies in Franzen’s contempt for Patty. See, she’s a dumb jock without discipline, gratitude, or empathy. It’s difficult to understand why we have to spend so much time with her; though Franzen does indicate that she’s quite pretty.
Part of the problem lies in Franzen himself. There is an inarticulate bitterness that permeates all of his writing. I’m fine with caustic, nihilistic, etc., but peevish didacticism without fresh insight quickly becomes draining and ultimately repellent. He is unsubtle, often crude to the point of puerility, and lacking in both the acuity and generosity needed for rewarding reading. In my humble opinion, of course.
It’s the book of the season (if not the next three years), so go on and read it. I hope you find a place in your heart for Franzen that I lack.