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Long long ago, when people still read novels, the American right had a rich tradition of attacking the works of left-leaning authors on aesthetic grounds. So where, for instance, what really bothered the conservative New Criterion about Don DeLillo was most likely his stubborn insistence on using the novel as a vehicle through which to humorously explore such topics as late capitalism, the Kennedy assassination, the Moonies etc. etc., the journal instead assailed his novels on charges of tediousness, artificiality, overabundance of words, etc.:
They are tracts, designed to batter us, again and again, with a single idea: that life in American today is boring, benumbing, dehumanized. Not only has the American system robbed us of our individuality; the era’s despicable technological innovations have afflicted us all with a dreadful condition known as “sensory overload.”
Today, of course, novels do not matter, and novelists are generally free to critique conformity, sport utility vehicles, neoconservative foreign policy and the rest of the leftist gripe gamut without risking a withering hit piece carried out by some disingenuous public intellectual on behalf of the American right. Or so I thought, until I witnessed the recent onslaught of politically-motivated attacks on Jonathan Franzen‘s ambitious new Oprah-endorsed novel, Freedom (the latest of which just appeared in TNR.)
Freedom is a flawed but funny social novel that takes place during the Bush Administration. The backdrop is the Iraq war and the irrepressible ascendancy of the iPod; the subtext is the collapse of the middle class. If any of those things would lead you to expect its depiction of so-called “free-market capitalism” to be anything nicer than “vastly unfavorable” you are an idiot. Much to my personal satisfaction, though, Franzen went above and beyond the call of good liberal duty by making one of his primary characters a terminally outraged environmental lawyer who (together with his best cynical, dissipated rock star best friend) delivers sermon after comically over-the-top sermon railing against the multitude of injustices, immoralities, logical fallacies and plain old vulgarities promulgated by the treacherous, insatiable, infuriatingly nihilistic cartoon villain that is the “free” market. These are not people who, as a pollster would put it, believe “the country is headed in the right direction.”
But who does? You sure as hell don’t need fiction these days to meet angry people with theories on all that ills the nation (including, according to one of Walter’s more amusing rants, National Public Radio) which is why I was surprised to learn via his blog that Tyler Cowen, the economist and director of the libertarian Mercatus Center, was reading the book, despite having almost stopped at page 100—and downright shocked to learn it had penetrated the orbit of conservative pundit Amanda Carpenter, who tweeted over the weekend to register her “disappointment” in the book. (Perhaps she was hoping for something more along the lines of Saving Freedom, the laissez-faire manifesto authored by her boss, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint?)
Cowen was more generous at the outset. “I was not afraid it would get worse, rather I was afraid it would get better and I would start liking it,” he wrote, before concluding ominously, “Which is precisely what has been happening.” But by last weekend Cowen had apparently started hating Freedom all over again, blogging cryptically that “the book has vanished for me” in a post praising a strenuous takedown in the Atlantic by the elusive Seoul-based literary critic Brian Reynolds Myers, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University who has, by the few available accounts, spent all but a few of his forty-seven years outside the country. What literary editor worth his MFA* would assign such a person to review a book that is being hailed as the Zeitgeist-capturing novel of modern America? I’ll get to that, but I should first state that I never would have bothered even Googling the question until Tuesday, when New York Times token GOP shill and Crown Prince of Mild Manners David Brookspiled onto the pile-up in an extraordinary column titled “The ‘Freedom’ Agenda.”
True to nice guy form, Brooks praises Myers’ review as “smart” but “overly biting.” Perhaps, but Brooks totally slays Myers in the “diabolically unfair” department. Whereas Myers only tells one major lie about the book’s content and characters—stating that “of the four main characters, only Walter has a real job” (when in actuality Franzen’s characters main and minor are universally not only gainfully employed, but unusually industrious and devoted to their jobs)—Brooks manages to pack nine material misstatements about the book’s plot into a mere 73 words:
There’s almost no religion.(1) There’s very little about the world of work(2) and enterprise.(3) There’s an absence of ethnic heritage(4), military service(5), technical innovation(6), scientific research(7) or anything else potentially lofty and ennobling.
Richard is an artist, but we don’t really see the artist’s commitment to his craft(8). Patty is an athlete, but we don’t really see the team camaraderie(9) that is the best of sport.
Now, what is truly brilliant about the above is that every single one of those things is either a dominant theme or a conspicuous subtext of Freedom (and you can scroll down to see my detailed annotations if you really care.) It makes you wonder why Brooks didn’t just go ahead and add “the inimitable joys of semi-functional family life” to the list! (Maybe someone’s editor actually read The Corrections?) It’s as if the guy read a Candace Bushnell novel just so he could tell his readers that, “important new book” though it may be, the leaden plot was woefully lacking in references to female friendship, casual sex, meals consumed in trendy restaurants, ludicrously expensive anti-aging ointments and/or cosmetic surgery procedures, homosexuals, frivolity in general, and even more disappointingly he found no instances of product placement or the word “fabulous” in any of its 256 pages (and also what was up with everyone in the book insisting on going barefoot everywhere?) Nothing to see here, “security moms”! Jeez, what will Franzen think of next, a vampire-free young adult novel?
Oh, also: Brooks diagnoses Franzen as a victim of the “Quiet Desperation” dogma that preaches that “there are no happy people in the suburbs, and certainly no fulfilled ones”—and yet nothing in this novel actually takes place in the suburbs until page 541 of 562, when Walter moves to some gated community where the whole entire family ultimately finds total fulfillment and joy. Brooks must be really afraid his readers are actually going to shell out $29 for a hardcover novel!
None of this is that surprising, I guess; lying about ostensibly quotidian facts when no one is paying attention is one of Brooks’ classic moves. But by reminding me of Myers’ more “biting”—if slightly less mendacious—takedown, he unwittingly led me down an internet search rabbit hole, the findings of which I have no choice but to share with you so my bosses know what the hell I’ve been doing all fucking day.
The literary editor of the Atlantic is a guy named Benjamin Schwarz. He lives in Los Angeles and also holds the title of “national editor” of the magazine. According to his bio, he started his magazine career at the World Policy Journal, where “his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs,” and before that he was an analyst at the RAND Corporation, “where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine.” He has also been on staff at the Brookings Institution.
He has written prolifically on a wide range of topics, and although I did not have time to adequately survey his canon, one 1999 op-ed from the LA Times caught my eye:
PERSPECTIVE ON PAPAL VISIT
A MESSAGE DISCOMFITING TO ALL
PAUL II AGREES WITH MARX AND ENGELS THAT CAPITALISM IS THE MOST CORROSIVE SOCIAL FORCE IN HISTORY.**
Anyway, I guess it makes sense that a geopolitical economy think tank terrorism buff would enjoy working with a preeminent expert on the world’s most inscrutable rogue state, even if all they get to nuke is the measly careers of literary novelists.
Schwarz published B.R. Myers for the first time in 2001, when the latter submitted a 13,400-word “manifesto” railing against “affectedness”, “pretentiousness”, “standout sentences”, “relentless wordplay,” and a whole host of other language fetish-related diseases he saw plaguing the entire canon of contemporary American literature. Of one his primary targets, DeLillo, he wrote:
This sort of patronizing nonsense is typical of Consumerland writers; someone should break the news to them that the average shopper feels nothing in a supermarket but the strong urge to get out again. White Noise also continues a long intellectual tradition of exaggerating the effects of advertising.
Myers, who was in the middle of a brief three-year stint in New Mexico following a life spent mostly abroad when the piece was published, had supposedly been pitching his rant to the Atlantic for a years, but it wasn’t until the late Michael Kelly, the anachro/neocon former New Republic editor Atlantic owner David Bradley appointed to helm the magazine after he bought it in 1999, that someone was actually assigned to edit the thing. The job fell to Schwarz, who later told the LA Times:
“Brian is a great writer,” Schwartz says of Myers, “and there was no problem with the prose style or the core of the argument, but there were some drawbacks to his not being a literary insider. Like I had to explain that being an Oprah pick did not help a book critically.”
And this is the guy they commission to review Franzen!?
The guy who doesn’t think advertising actually convinces people of anything!!!!
True to character, Myers’ latest treatise takes swipes at DeLillo and Franzen’s numerous references to pop culture, news events, brand names, etc. But yet again, Myers purports to prosecute Franzen namely on charges of misuse of the English language. Franzen’s problem, though, is that he’s not pretentious enough, according to Myers.
The language a writer uses to create a world is that world, and Franzen’s strenuously contemporary and therefore juvenile language is a world in which nothing important can happen…There is no import in things that ‘suck,’ no drama in someone’s being ‘into’ someone else…A writer like Franzen, who describes two lovers as ‘fucking,’ trivializes their relationship accordingly. The result is boredom.
Elsewhere, Myers calls the novel a “576-page monument to insignificance”, a line Brooks picks up on:
But surely this is Franzen’s point. At a few major moments, he compares his characters to the ones in “War and Peace.” Franzen is obviously trying to make us see the tremendous difference in scope between the two sets of characters.
Helpfully, the Bobos in Paradise author explains to the outsider that Franzen is simply trying to portray “an America where people are unhappy and spiritually stunted.” It is part of a long literary tradition:
Sometime long ago, a writer by the side of Walden Pond decided that middle-class Americans may seem happy and successful on the outside, but deep down they are leading lives of quiet desperation.
Perhaps this rings a bell with the Kim Jong Il-ologist; he has spent the last ten years watching the the same cliches ruin North Korean fiction! After decades of peddling absurdist propaganda about the rampant poverty of their southern neighbors in their novels and short story collections, they’ve taken a new tack (perhaps one they learned from Don DeLillo, whom they probably heard about from the Reverend Moon.):
However, around 2000 the North Korean watchers (well, actually a handful of them with the time and ability to read the official press systematically) began to notice a new image of the South emerge.
Brian Myers, the ever observant reader of North Korean press and fiction first noticed the signs of this quiet transformation when it was only beginning.
Soon it became clear that he was right. A new propaganda line was being born. Interestingly, this time the new line was introduced not through newspapers, but in a more subtle way, through works of fiction, which also have to be approved by the supreme ideological authorities.
The new South Korea which emerged in these writings wasn’t so poor. Actually, it was not poor at all. The characters in recent North Korean novels, which deal with the imaginary life of the South, enjoy a lifestyle far superior to that of the average North Korean. They drive cars, dine out easily and live in expensive houses.
Does this mean that the new image of the South is positive? Of course not! South Korean society might be rich, the propaganda operators say, but it is still inferior to the North.
The South Koreans had to pay a terrible price for their success: they were deprived of their precious national identity…The spiritual pollution has become a great problem. The American military presence is to blame. The Americans and their puppets deliberately keep the country in this state of pollution and degradation.
So cut the guy some slack: yes, he based a flimsy assassination of a book on the author’s use of “suck” and “fuck” and “bang” and “pussy”; and yes he did this after making his name in the literary world railing against the supposedly pervasive outbreak of writers “bandying about words like ‘ontological’ and ‘nominalism.'” (Make no mistake, folks: this is a man who has read his Mao.)
The point is, in so openly criticizing America on such dated, hackneyed, Vatican-approved terms, Franzen has stooped to the level of the North Koreans. Will he be reduced to cannibalism next? Because that might garner some praise from the Atlantic Monthly. Until then, David Brooks will be happy to listen to your tiresome complaints about the spiritual bankruptcy of capitalist society, as long as you’ve got a story in which the dastardly “free markets” actually force people to eat one another.
*That’s a joke, by the way!
**Schwarz does not, he says toward the end of the column, disagree with the Pope or Marx (or Franzen) about capitalism’s social corrosiveness. (Other pieces he has written would seem to conflict with this, but that’s a matter for another 3,000-word blog post.)
1. and 4. Religion and ethnic heritage: I like how Brooks says there’s “almost” no religion; he wisely knew there was just enough to warrant indignant charges of anti-Semitism from The New Republic’s Adam Kirsch! It is true that none of the book’s leading characters are devoutly religious, a byproduct of the structurally and thematically critical amount of (relatively uncontroversial) intermarrying they all do—a brand of casual middle-class white miscegenation that, incidentally, forms the basis of all of the book’s deepest relationships, relationships Franzen obviously sees as important embodiments of American exceptionalism, but I’ll save that for book club—which dilutes the religious tribes. That said, the absence of religion is omnipresent, and in some sections explored at length, as in one of Richard’s rants about iPods and Christianity, or the poignant section at the end about Walter’s familys’ long-forgotten Advent candy-making ritual, or the section where Joey attends High Holidays with his college roommate, a conservative Jew named Jonathan, in defiance of his stubbornly secular (but biologically Jewish) mother:
At the very long diner table, he was seated on the same side as Jenna, which spared him a view of her and allowed him to concentrate on conversing with one of the bald uncles, who assumed that he was Jewish and regaled him with an account of his recent vacation-slash-business trip in Israel. Joey pretended to be fluent and impressed with much that was utterly foreign to him: the Western Wall and its tunnels, the Tower of David, Masada, Yad Vashem. Delayed-action resentment of his mother, coupled with the fabulousness of the house and his fascination with Jenna and a certain unfamiliar feeling of genuine intellectual curiosity, was making him actually long to be more Jewish—to see what this kind of belonging might be like.
2. Work, 3. Enterprise and 8. Commitment to craft: Since very few writers in developed capitalist society are not somewhat self-loathing about the fact of not having (in Myers’ parlance) “real jobs,” it is rare to find a contemporary American novelist who has not grappled with the above three subjects, but Franzen really outdoes himself with this triumvirate—it’s a novel about capitalism after all. Great swaths of text labor philosophically (but humorously) over the paradoxical sense of satisfaction Richard derives from construction “work”—unencumbered as it is from the crass commercialism, undeserved adulation and hedonism of the larger “enterprise” that is the music industry—even as he often feels worthless next to Walter, even when he learns the seamy details of a Faustian business deal his old friend has made with a billionaire oil man. Patty is an ambitious homemaker who falls into paralyzing depression when her children start to grow up; Walter convinces her to get a job and she eventually finds fulfillment and inner peace in work as well. Joey works for an arms contractor, and there are easily 40 or 50 pages about that. Connie works long hours at a crappy restaurant. Etc. etc.
5. Military service in its modern mercenary-leaning incarnation, is another persistent topic in Freedom. When he first discovers his roommate’s inactive membership in the tribe, Jonathan informs Joey that he, too, is eligible to serve in the Israeli army. When Jonathan eventually sours on both Israel and U.S. foreign policy war, his (neocon) father adopts Joey as a sort of surrogate son and helps him enlist in the affluent 21st century equivalent of military service Joey, a lucrative gig working for a defense contractor. (To be fair, Joey at one point rejects a job in Iraq, privatizing bakeries under the helm of L. Paul Bremer, and perhaps Brooks is subtly suggesting that he missed a valuable opportunity to involve himself in something truly “lofty and ennobling”, because that is precisely the kind of corrupt nonsense you would have to believe to be David Brooks, but I digress.)
9. Team camaraderie is perhaps the most mystifying of the deficits Brooks alleges to exist in Freedom. “Teamwork”, and its sometimes-transcendent ability to channel individual excellence for the greater good and reconcile the conflicts that arise between selfishness and altruism, is like the number one preoccupation of this whole fucking book (not to mention, “civilization”, “mass manufacturing” etc. ) and Franzen devotes tens of thousands of words to this subject. But let’s get literal here. Here is a section from the very beginning, where Patty confides in her high school basketball coach (as opposed to her mother, who is preoccupied with her political career) that she has been date-raped.
Patty began to cry again, because she would almost rather have died than let a team down. Earlier in the winter, with the flu, she’d played most of a half of basketball before fainting on the sideline and getting fluids intravenously. The problem now was that she hadn’t been with her own team the night before. She’d gone to the party with her field-hockey friend Amanda, whose soul was apparently never going to be at rest until she’d induced Patty to sample pina coladas, vast buckets of which had ben promised at the McCluskys’. El ron me puso loca. None of the other girls at the McCluskys’ swimming pool were jocks. Almost just by showing up there, Patty had betrayed her real true team. And now she’d been punished for it.
6. Technical innovation and 7. Science are again, both so central to the book’s landscape, plot and central message that it is tough to know where to begin. But the “social” components of Franzen’s social novel are mostly anchored to Walter’s sometimes deranged obsession with the perils of overpopulation, a perennial (if politically incorrect) obsession of well-intentioned control freaks. Anyway, science and technology are pretty central to these peoples’ dim hopes for “ennoblement” so I don’t know how Brooks missed that one, either.