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Freedom and commitment: what Franzen may have learned from Wally Lamb

Jonathan Franzen, FreedomPitting novels against each other can be a poor critical strategy. When all is said and done, fictional worlds may only be accounted for in terms of themselves, and it is only metaphorically that the merits of an author “make up” for the shortcomings of another. This is not to say that literary works are incommensurable, but comparison is a goal for us to achieve, rather than a safe point of departure. From time to time, however, books that we have happened to read at short intervals develop an uncanny power of mutual attraction, like twin stars. To think of one is to imply the other: no longer discrete additions to our library, as it were, they function like variables in a secret equation. I recently experienced one of these “clicks” – more like a big question mark than a light bulb moment, anyway – after enjoying practically back to back two sizable shots at the turn-of-the-millennium GAN (Great American Novel). Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010) and Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True (1998).

The first I had bought at once and quarantined for later reading, waiting for the racket to subside; the other was a last minute afterthought: never heard of the man, never heard about the book. A typical hell-why-not situation. The result was baffling: the one horse I was betting on (shall I mention in passing that I consider The Corrections a decade-defining classic?) gave a brilliant but certainly not staggering performance; the stranger with a name like a cartoon character blew me away. Worse: Lamb’s 900-page masterpiece struck me as the book Franzen had possibly been trying to write all along, a sort of larger-than-life Franzen archetype. It wasn’t just that it is better than Freedom, which is fair enough to me: more shockingly, it also felt like a template for The Corrections — a heavier, stronger and nastier counterpart. The human material, the moral issues, even a few plot points were surprisingly similar. Had Franzen read this guy? Had he learned things from him (possibly about himself)? Did my mental map of American literature need some readjusting?

On the face of it, Franzen and Lamb have very little in common. One is a virtuoso, a master of authorial eloquence and “check this out” stylistic bravado; he can write very well and wants you to know it. The other works with simpler sentences, a plainer language, smaller details, but the terminal velocity of his chapters can pack devastating blows. One is a certified, officially anointed chronicler of contemporary American life; the other is the acclaimed but comparatively marginal author of four novels, only two of which were really successful. Both are interested in the East Coast middle class, but they seem to look at it from opposite ends of the social spectrum: Lamb’s characters are not the kind that ends up cooking for fancy restaurants, handling millions or getting involved in massive import-export scams in Lithuania or Poland.

Stripped down to its bare bones, I Know This Much is True is a study of existential anger and brotherly love. Dominick Birdsey, the main character and narrating “I”, is a forty year old house painter whose life is stifled by resentment and frustration: he has grown up without a father, lost an infant daughter and a wife, given up a career in teaching, and had a vasectomy. To make matters worse, his twin brother Thomas has been a paranoid schizophrenic since age nineteen. His pathetic weakness and vulnerability have forced the sane half of the pair to keep up his guard all his life, to “run interference” for his powerless counterpart, often at dreadful psychological costs. When Thomas, a religious fanatic, chops off his right hand with an army knife in a misguided attempt to stop the impending Gulf War (the story is set in the early 1990s), this last straw breaks the camel’s back, and Dominick is forced to embark on a journey of suffering, loyalty and self-discovery. As it turns out, he is not only fighting to get his brother out of a fishy forensic facility, but to set right his own life: change his attitude, make amends, condone the past, put memories and traumas in a perspective. This process takes the better part of a thousand pages, yet length is hardly an issue: the book is unputdownable and you’ll be mighty sorry when it’s over. How Lamb achieves such a gut-wrenching pace is quite a mystery to me. Apart from Dominick and his self-important Italian grandfather (hero of a wacky novel-in-the-novel countersubject), characters are extraordinarily well-described and possibly ambiguous, but two-dimensional. The writing is “just right”, that is essential and effective, but as soon as you are hooked you scarcely pay any mind to the words. There is no attention-whoring, no feeling-mongering: Lamb sticks to his job, and yet he pulls a remarkable stunt.

One of the reasons may be the powerful moral subtext. That’s where Lamb really takes you by the balls. Two themes are paramount: 1) you can’t fix the past, what has been is beyond repair, beyond redemption, but you can still learn to cope with it, see it as a part of a greater whole and try to make sense of mistakes and misfortune; 2) there is no meaningfulness in life this side of human commitment: the more you struggle to break free from ties and duties that you perceive as limiting (e.g. responsibilities towards other people); the harder you try to be yourself all by yourself, on your own terms, the emptier your life becomes. Real meaning is only to be found in togetherness and empathy, no matter the personal costs.

Past mistakes cannot be “corrected”, “freedom” does not exist (or is not desirable). Does this ring a bell? Yes it does: it sounds like Jonathan Franzen! Again, I am not implying that inspiration has traveled one way or another, but the similarity is remarkable, because neither of these analogies is trivial or predictable enough to be explained away in terms of Zeitgeist. Is it a generation thing? Has something been going on? Is it that both guys are authors of family novels? After all, one of the reasons why the family theme is such a powerful coherence device in fiction is that relatives share a common past and mutual obligations for the future. You cannot do much better in terms of Aristotelian unities. Still, I don’t know many more examples of Lamb’s and Franzen’s particular angle.

Take Freedom. The way the main theme is woven into the plot is very subtle. Throughout the action, each and every one of the main characters discovers that freedom as a negative privilege (the freedom to stay home from work; the freedom to ignore social conventions; the freedom to escape one’s father’s authority or cheat the State and get away with it) is a source of non-sense. There is no “good life” save the one that is lived in common, there is no meaningfulness outside of mutual obligation. Two memorable episodes function as brilliant mises en abyme of this premise. One is young Joey going from kid to man as he rummages through his own feces in order to recover a wedding ring he has accidentally swallowed, all while the hottest girl (not his bride) is waiting in a bedroom nearby. This is when he accepts that a relationship implies renouncing one’s urges: he could get away with betrayal or buy a new ring, but he chooses to stick to his sticky Wally Lamb, I know this much is truegirlfriend. A second highly symbolic moment is when Walter, Joey’s father, makes passionate love with his attractive Indian secretary right after splitting up with his wife. He has been anticipating this for months, both partners have (and readers too), but the woman’s vagina is too lubricated, too smooth, and he doesn’t feel a thing. The moral couldn’t be more transparent: there is no pleasure without “friction”, absolute freedom of movement doesn’t take you anywhere. Commitment is imperfect, painful, subject to mistakes and blunders (“mistakes were made” is one of the novel’s catchwords), but it is the only way for a human being to live. It takes a long time and repeated trial and error for the lesson to sink in, but when the protagonists realize it, the family is able to renegotiate its ties and recompose. The prodigal son knocks at the door; husband and wife go from estrangement to a symbolic remarriage.

Some have complained that Freedom reads like a remake of The Corrections. I don’t: what both novels remind me of, in retrospect, is Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True. Unlike Franzen, Lamb likes to spike his realism with a touch of magic and organizes action around mythical structures, but the emotional, social, and moral stuff these novels are made of is the same. Compare the endings and you will see what I mean.

The bottom line is: be smarter than yours truly and read Wally Lamb as soon as you get a chance. A book that delivers the algebraic sum of two quintessential American novels before they are even written has better claims to enduring fame than inclusion in Oprah’s Book Club.

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