A Mighty Nation

All we are and all we could be

Category: Overdue Books

OVERDUE BOOKS :: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen


In 1970 it was cool to care about the planet’s future and not have kids. Now the one thing everyone agrees on, right and left, is that it’s beautiful to have a lot of babies. The more the better. Kate Winslet is pregnant, hooray hooray. Some dimwit in Iowa just had octuplets, hooray hooray. The conversation about the idiocy of SUVs stops dead the minute people say they’re buying them to protect their precious babies.

Freedom, as far as novels of its ilk go, had at the time of its release about as much cultural relevance as is possible, but not entirely for positive reasons. While I respect Jonathan Franzen for bending mass culture’s ear, even for a moment, to the literary community in this day and age, there was something about the whole scenario that was off-putting to me. Perhaps some sort of Midwestern disdain for rubbernecking, for being part of a gawping crowd.

Now that the tempest over Freedom, and Franzen, has resided to the tea cup where it rightfully belongs, it seemed like a good time to finally check out what the hoopla was about. While I generally try to divorce the context of the book and the author from the actual work itself, in cases like this, it’s difficult to not let preconceptions and expectations color the experience. And, as usually happens, the work suffers in comparison.

Freedom splits its time between two main narratives that it stitches together through a crazy-quilt collage of perspectives and voices, the first being the life and generational conflicts of the Berglunds, a typical (or maybe not) white middle-upper-class liberal family living in St. Paul and Washington DC, and the second being a love triangle between Walter and Patty Berglund and rock star Richard Katz.

The latter thread is imminently more interesting than the first, and provides the main thrust of the novel. Patty, a talented basketball player, flees her East Coast upper-crust family of politicians and lawyers after a hushed-up rape for the University of Minnesota, where she encounters the cool and aloof Richard and his nebbish, do-gooder friend Walter. Walter’s love for Patty is immediate and unconditional, nearly as strong as Patty’s own lust for Richard. While circumstance and Walter’s own determination ultimately result in their marriage, Patty never loses her desire for Richard or regret at ending up with Walter, burying it under years of housewifery and passive-aggressive bickering with Walter.

The other conflict manifests itself in Patty and Walter’s unusual son Joey, whom Patty fuels her misplaced love into. His precociousness leads him to move into their neighbors’ house while still in high school and take up a sexual relationship with their older daughter, Connie.

All of this is divulged through a variety or perspectives, book ended by sections of meandering plural viewpoints from Walter and Patty’s neighbors along with a pair of epistolary sections written by Patty. The core of the book is a series of chapters that rotate through Richard, Joey, and Walter as the POV characters. The menagerie of viewpoints seems meant to explore the complexity and ambiguity of the Berglunds’ lives, but in fact only ends up exacerbating the disconnected narrative strands the book is constantly trying, and failing, to weave together.

While Franzen may have meant for the book to feel expansive, it ultimately just feels fraught with excess. Even attempting to summarize what happens feels to be an exercise in futility; still left undiscussed are Walter’s crusade against growing the population, Patty’s stalker ex-roommate, Joey’s entrepreneurial boondoggles in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, Richard’s reinvention from a punk act to an alt-country superstar, Walter’s own extramarital love interest Lalitha, along with any number of odd tangents, including a lengthy ode to Bright Eyes and the album Lifted, of all things.

Freedom wants to have it both ways. It wants to be a realistic, intimate portrayal of a family’s intrapersonal turmoil. It also wants to be the book on American Life in the early 2000’s. A noble ambition, and perhaps one that could work, but the Berglunds live on too grand a scale to be realistic or knowable and their real problems too small to play across the epic stage the novel demands.

The resolutions of the competing narratives give the lie of just how hollow the characters are, with the generational conflict between Joey and his parents seemingly resolving itself without incident off-page; more problematic is the completion of Walter and Patty’s relationship. Just as it brought them together, fate conspires to bring them back together after they separate due to Patty’s infidelity with Richard. Patty and Richard simply admit to the impossibility of their compatibility, also without incident and off-page, while Walter’s love interest Lalitha is killed off so as to pave the way for Walter and Patty’s predestined reunion.

The issue, and one common to demise-of-relationship stories, is that in documenting the nadir of Walter and Patty’s marriage and the horrible ways in which they treat each other, the reader begins to lose any sympathy or investment in the characters or their relationship. When Walter and Patty do end up back together and make things work, it doesn’t feel triumphant or satisfying; it feels contrite and perverse.

Freedom fails to execute on any of its competing visions, which could be forgivable, if not for the temerity of its ambition, for the lack of levity or self-depreciation. The turning point of Joey’s character arc, for example, finds him literally rooting through his own shit, and at no point is the absurdity of the moment truly reflected on. The novel is loaded down with moments like this, not to mention entire characters and plot lines, that drag down what could have been an emotionally compelling chronicle of a relationship into something much less appealing.



OVERDUE BOOKS :: HELP! A Bear is Eating Me by Mykle Hansen

Mr. Bear

Morning of the fourth day. This place is cold, damp, smelly and utterly inconvenient. Stuck under a car, bear ate my feet, wife treacherous, bugs biting, hip wound seeping, blah blah blah. I’m not a complainer, so enough about all that.

HELP! A Bear is Eating Me, by Mykle Hansen, is not a book with much room for subtleties. It is a megaphone with the volume turned to 11. The narrator, Marv Pushkin, is not a man of subtleties. He is the epitome of ugly American corporate culture, driven entirely by naked greed and ambition. He is a vain, boorish, misogynistic, racist, Ted Nugent-loving misanthrope.

Marv takes Image Team – his department at an insidious PR firm that represents clients such as a company that makes face-melting beef sticks – bear hunting in Alaska on a team building exercise. Needless to say, things don’t go as intended.

The book begins with Marv pinned under his (much beloved) Range Rover and in the process of being eaten by a bear. The story of how he came to be in this situation, and how he came to be the man he is, unfolds in Proustian fashion as Marv, inured to pain by a smorgasbord of medication, recalls his past in between fits of monological ranting berating those he blames for his situation, which is anyone and everyone, including the reader.

For Marv, other people exist for two things: to be used to his benefit and then discarded. He married his wife for her money, he tortures his subordinates for his own professional gain, and he sexually humiliates his mistress. The only relationship that exhibits any growth in the book is that between Marv and the bear – as he calls him, Mister Bear. When Mister Bear fights off another, larger bear that comes to feast on Marv, he cheers on Mister Bear:

Did you see my bear kick that other bear’s ass? That other bear that was twice my bear’s size? My bear is awesome. Mister Bear, you’re a madman! You’re a monster! You saved my snacks! You’re my hero! Mister Bear, do you want a beer?

The admiration of Mister Bear eventually morphs, as Marv continues to lose touch with reality, into a strange mixture of sexuality and identification, as Marv’s masturbatory fantasy twists his mistress into increasingly bear like shapes and an extended dream sequence has Marv himself twisting into a bear, beginning with his lost bear-eaten legs growing into paws.

We are given over to the gleeful torture of Marv over the course of HELP!, and the overriding question is how much torture we are willing to condone upon a person that represents the worst of society and humanity. The concept, however, begins to wear through when we are inevitably given the soft underbelly of Marv’s abominable hide, his traumatic childhood, his mental instability. It’s inevitable to arrive at this point, from a narrative perspective, but humanity suits Marv poorly, and shaming the reader for complicity in his suffering feels like a bit of a cheat.

The final turn of the book betrays the rudderless direction of the narrative, and reduces Marv to a punchline. Ultimately, the book lacks the courage of it’s narrator’s convictions in its unwillingness to surrender Marv either to his inhumanity or his gruesome fate.

Check out HELP! A Bear is Eating Me on Amazon.

OVERDUE BOOKS :: Introduction & Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock

A brief explanation of this (hopefully) recurring series: I’m not the kind of person that’s on the crest of the zeitgeist. It usually takes me a couple months (at least) to get to whatever is the new hot when it debuts. I just recently finished watching Downton Abbey (awesome, though the second season got pretty ludicrous) and right now I’m still figuring out what albums from 2011 were any good (hat tip to Mr. Heavenly). With books I’m even farther behind. A Visit from the Goon Squad is sitting forlornly underneath a stack of about five other books on my to-read shelf right now. Within the confines of my small mind this doesn’t bother me, but it’s kind of a pain in the ass when it comes to thinking of stuff to write about on my desolate blog here as I don’t want to come across as some kind of wimp-ass trying to play catch up by talking about stuff that’s not hot anymore. I want to be talking about what’s hip and cool! But, shit, I’m not hip and cool so I give up. Here are my (hopefully recurring) thoughts on books that have been out for however long and already had everything meaningful that will be said about them said by people infinitely more insightful and important than I am. Deal with it. By not reading it. Which you won’t.

Route 50 was two miles away, and I started walking toward it. Mud stuck to my boots like wet concrete, and every few steps I had to stop to shake it off. Looking up, I saw the red blinking lights of an airliner, miles above me, heading west. I’d never been on a plane, but I imagined big-shot bastards on vacation, movie stars with beautiful lives. I wondered if they could see the glow of Frankie’s fire from up there. I wondered what they would think of us.


The true heart of American fiction lives in the small town. Sure, plenty of books have obsessively mined cities, especially fabled New York, as their locale (the city itself becomes a character! – a loathsome phrase to be sure). But without any research or figures to back up this claim I can confidently say that the small town dominates American literature. In fact, the small town dominates the American identity (for reasons beyond the scope of the discussion at hand) and as people pour into cities and the population of rural areas dwindle these places take on even more mythic proportions. It is easy to idealize small town life, its simplicity and friendly familiarity, especially for a (presumed) urban, upper class literary audience; and also is it easy to demonize for its dullness and small-mindedness. As with any other subject, the authenticity of the work, of the characters and the world, is paramount.

If there’s a main story from Knockemstiff, it isn’t from the book, it’s about authenticity. Almost every discussion of the book touched heavily on the author, Donald Ray Pollock, and his hardscrabble underclass life and unlikely journey to respected literati. I’m not going to dwell on this as I certainly respect Pollock and have no ill will towards him or his success. I’m bringing this up merely to underscore the fact that Pollock’s background was a hard selling point for the authenticity of his work. But the stories in Knockemstiff don’t feel like an authentic view of a troubled small town. They read like a cosmopolitan nightmare of what small town life is like, filled with violent paint-huffing yokels, gravel roads and broken store fronts, cheap beer and incest.

I’d like to point out at this time that I’ve never been to Knockemstiff. I googled some pictures of the town and it does look about as bombed out as it is described, and neither am I questioning Pollock’s intent. He mentions explicitly in the acknowledgements that “my friends and neighbors [in Knockemstiff] were good people who never hesitated to help someone in a time of need.”

The problem is not the milieu of the stories, but rather the heart at their core. There seems little effort to understand or empathize the denizens of Knockemstiff, rather they are duly paraded out to take their lumps for the audience before being shuffled off. The characters are caricatures, grotesqueries not in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor but in the freak show mode. The only story in the book to stoop to offer any sort of redemption to its tortured protagonist is “I Start Over”, when an obese man beats several teenagers to a bloody pulp after they mock his mentally debilitated-by-way-of-drugs son in the drive thru of a Dairy Queen.

None of this is to say that the book isn’t any good, per se. The prose is clean and exhilarating in places; for any possible liberties the stories take with the characters Pollock never uses his prose to denigrate his characters or their world. Pollock knows his strengths as a writer and plays them to the hilt, which is also most likely the root of my problems with the book. Pollock knows how to beat up a character incredibly well, and not much else.

It would be a lie to have a book deal with characters living in such abject poverty and have their lives painted as especially joyous or hopeful. As a socio-economic document on those left behind in America’s abandonment of rural areas, the stories certainly have merit. But such literature, devoid of any sort of redemptive aspect, devoid of even a small measure of empathy and compassion, becomes little more than a shooting gallery. In the eponymous story, a married couple of upper class effete yuppies from California roll through town and look to photograph some locals for a book the wife is working on. The narrator of the story is annoyed with the two, and wonders if they are making fun of him, or “why someone would make a special trip just to take a picture of Knockemstiff, or put such a picture in a book.” But still, the man poses underneath the town sign for a picture with the girl he loves (who is about to leave town), and she enthuses “This might be my last chance to get my picture took with a dumb hillbilly.” The story comes early in the book, and the uneasy exploitation of the scene looms over the rest of the stories. The intended irony of the story is hard to miss, but what runs deeper is an irony that Pollock most likely didn’t intend, for even as the yuppie couple become a symbol of the reader, Pollock becomes a substitute for the girl in the picture, smiling next to her fellow Knockemstiff resident, co-opting his humiliation as the flash bursts.

Check out Knockemstiff on Amazon.