Full disclosure: I suspect that, had I read this novel when it came out, I would have loved it. I would have found it funnier then than I found it now, I wouldn’t have noticed the misogyny I wouldn’t have cared an iota about the unlikable characters, and I probably wouldn’t have been aware of one of the biggest issues I had with the novel. But I read it when I read it so here we are.
This is my first Franzen novel but know that I live in a world in which he is both incredibly acclaimed and also derided in some circles. I was aware of this before I read the book, I’m sure it factored into my reaction.
I don’t know exactly what I think of front-loading a novel with the most unlikeable characters but it certainly is a choice. Denise, the least unlikeable of the family, at least for most of the book, is given perspective last among the five of them, whereas Chip, the most ridiculous and least believable member of the family, is put up front. I don’t know what I think but it’s certainly a choice.
Chip may not actually be the least likeable member of his family, but he’s the worst character. I’m 40 as I write this and I can tell you that most men in their late 30s are not this horny. Maybe it seemed clever to make a feminist professor a sex maniac in 2001 but, uh, it seems pretty lazy now. Introducing the book with him feels like a deliberate choice that I’m not sure quite works.
I also got the feeling that Franzen likes Chip more than he likes the other characters, at least most of the time, which made it harder to take. It also feels as though Franzen doesn’t like Enid. Maybe I’m mistaken, given how the novel ends, but it sure feels like he is not fond of her. And though I don’t always love it when people complain about art where the creator appears to dislike their creations, I felt it here a little too much. That being said, I could really, really see Enid as a person much of the time. She felt the most real perhaps of all the family.
The book is quite beautifully written at times and it’s clear that Franzen is a pretty great writer at his best. I wished I had noted my favourite passages but there were times when I was pretty in awe of his style.
But I wish I laughed more than I did. More often I thought about how I would have laughed when I was 20 but not now.
And I couldn’t help but feel that Franzen’s reach exceeded his grasp particularly with some details he added. For example, he writes about a jazz collection in a room as if he has only ever once glanced at a jazz collection. The sentence sounded like he couldn’t tell you how many albums Miles Davis had. (I am a massive fan and I can’t tell you, which is sort of the point.)
That might seem like a really minor thing but this weird lack of attention to detail showed itself in other ways, such as with how he understands (or fails to understand) the internet. I can see how in 2001 this might have been forgivable but now that we’ve all been on the internet for 25 years or longer some of what he thinks about the internet just sounds like a confused old man. (He was barely older than Chip when this came out.)
But nothing in the entire novel reveals this more than everything about Lithuania. Look, I’ve never been to Lithuania, and I know very little about it, mostly through books and travel shows, but I know it wasn’t a failed state in 2001. Again, maybe this was something you could get away with in 2001, when literary critics were as confused about the internet as Franzen, but it’s very, very easy to check my gut instinct that Lithuania was not, indeed, a failed state in 2001. Why Lithuania? Maybe he thought it was funny. But he writes about it like it was Venezuela recently or Colombia in the ’90s or something. And it’s weird. The great authors Franzen is too often compared to wouldn’t have made this big an error. Or, alternatively, they would have clearly indicated that the novel was occurring in an alternative reality.
About that reality: Franzen gets a lot of credit for anticipating some of the problems of early 21st century America. I’m not sure I entirely agree but I see why some people feel that way. I don’t remember exactly when the Dot Com bubble burst, for example. Maybe there is something prescient here.
Okay, pretty big SPOILER
I know novels are Literature and aren’t supposed to have clear morals but it’s a little hard coming away from the end of this book thinking that the message is this family could have been so much happier if they had just come together sooner to throw their patriarch in a nursing home. That denouement feels too easy, too deus ex machina. But at least it makes Enid more likable.
I am still not sure quite how I feel about this novel. I liked parts of a it rather a lot and really disliked parts of it. (I almost quit due to Chip.) I think Franzen is a pretty great stylist but also could have avoided his biggest pitfalls if he was just better at narrative construction. I don’t see how this book could be considered one of the great novels of the 21st century, even though I’ve read so few. And not just because I didn’t love it but also because it’s, you know, not very ambitious. I mean, it’s the story of a family of 5. I read Infinite Jest recently (not 21st century, I know) and, for all its faults, one thing you can say about it is that it’s ambitious. This novel is not particularly ambitious. It is just a story of a family and it varies in the degree to which it is well-told.
PS I really wish someone would make a TV show out of this novel (as somebody once tried to do). I feel like great actors could make these characters more likable and make some of the jokes really work.