Lindsay hardly even knows what Franzenfreude means, really.
A couple of months ago, the feminist corners of the Internet were in a tizzy over Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Jodi Picoult insinuated via Twitter that Franzen received a glowing review in the New York Times because he was a “white male literary darling.” The Internet responded with more tweets, analyses of Picoult’s original tweet, a trending topic called #Franzenfreude, and probably a couple of pie charts about how many of the authors reviewed in the NYT are white, male and/or darling. None of it had much to do with the actual book, but hey! It’s pretty long.
Here at Canonball, though, reading is kind of our thing. So in the spirit of groundbreaking investigative journalism, Lindsay went into the trenches and actually read the book. Below are her thoughts not on the contextual controversy, or even the theft of Franzen’s glasses, but some actual interesting feminist stuff she found inside the book. This might take more than 140 characters.
Some people say that Jonathan Franzen writes great female characters. Sam Tanenhaus, for one, wrote in his now infamous New York Times review, “One is at a loss to think of another male American writer so at ease with — that is, so genuinely curious about — the economy of female desire.” While I don’t quite share his overall enthusiasm for Franzen’s ladies (more later), I do want to single out a part of Freedom that I think earns this praise.
Freedom centers around the suburban couple Walter and Patty Berglund. Much of its first 200 pages are devoted to Patty describing her early life (both before and after meeting Walter) in her own voice — specifically, in an autobiographical manuscript that her shrink suggested she write. Chapter 2 of the manuscript is entitled “Best Friends,” and it chronicles Patty’s college years, tracing her development from a plucky but naive basketball star to, three weeks after her graduation, Walter’s young wife. Shortly after starting college, Patty befriends an eccentric, troubled girl named Eliza. The whirlwind development of their friendship was probably my favorite part of the whole book.
Now, literature has a great tradition of celebrating — and occasionally sexualizing — budding friendship between young men. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (from which Freedom‘s epigraph is drawn), Polixines gives a famous speech recounting his glory days when he and his fellow boyhood-brah-turned-king Leontes “frisked in the sun” and exchanged “innocence for innocence” — then, he posits, they met their wives, who had to come along, embody “sin” and heterosexual love and ruin all the fun. It’s a dynamic strewn all throughout literature (this speech itself contains some friendly nods to Milton’s “Lycidas”), but rare are the works that explore a similar dynamic between young women with any accuracy of feeling or attention to the way that sexualization takes on a different shape when the friends in question are female.
With Eliza and Patty, though, Franzen actually does a pretty commendable job. Before either of them have any sort of experience with consensual heterosexual love, their friendship is passionate and intense. Patty enjoys Eliza’s friendly affection, but she’s also confused:
“[Patty] was also fearful about Eliza — she suddenly realized that she had some kind of weird crush on Eliza and that it was therefore of paramount importance to sit motionless and contain herself and not discover that she was bisexual.”
I love this passage, especially in the way it contrasts with Shakespeare’s description of Polixines/Leontes’ carefree expressions of boyhood affection. As a woman, Patty’s been socialized not to embrace this kind of feeling but instead to police her own affection, “to sit motionless and contain herself.” What springs to mind here is that term (that I find particularly nauseating) “girl crush,” and the ironic lilt with which it’s often spoken, another phrase that society seems to have devised to gloss over the gray areas of female desire. Franzen’s description here shows the undercurrent of “fear” that society has taught Patty to feel about a passionate relationship with another woman in the absence of men. Patty isn’t actually bisexual; this is the only place in the text where her possible desire for another woman is expressed. But that’s what I like about the quote: it shows the extent to which society places a “fear” in women who identify as straight to keep a tight watch on the boundaries of their affection.
Like a complete inverse of The Winter’s Tale, everything goes to shit once boys come into the picture. First, the girls vie for the affection of Carter, and Patty ends up hurt and jealous of Eliza. Then Eliza falls for sulky musician Richard Katz. Love, she tells Patty dreamily, is “like being erased with a giant eraser.” She means it in a positive sense, but it also serves to wipe out the intensity of affection she once had for her friendship with Patty. Though boys aren’t the sole reason for their friendship’s demise (without spoiling too much, I’ll say that drugs come into play too), Eliza and Patty are never able to get back even a fraction of what they lost. In the wake of her only friend disappearing, Patty’s practically thrust into Walter’s open arms by default. Still, at no point in the book is Patty’s relationship with Walter described as thrillingly or intensely as her tempestuous friendship with Eliza.
Franzen gives us no further suggestion that Patty and Eliza are lesbians — and I think that’s actually to Franzen’s credit. Throughout reading the beginning of “Best Friends,” I was worried that Eliza would be reduced to a cliched plot device — a “token lesbian,” and a fleeting symbol of Patty’s “experiments in college” before she married the straight-arrow Walter. Thankfully, Franzen opts for something a little trickier: an exploration of the anxiety that surrounds female friendships between straight single women, and the sad ease with which the bonds of heterosexual love can sometimes level them “like a giant eraser.” I kept thinking Eliza would come back, that Franzen would employ her as some kind of symbolic representation of Patty “reconnecting with her past” or something hokey like that. But Patty’s marriage to Walter erases her for good. Eliza appears again briefly, in a particularly solemn scene: Patty spots her from afar at the DMV, and turns away before Eliza has the chance to recognize her.
So, at this point in the book, Franzen has created some pretty well-rounded female characters. Does this mean I’m suggesting that Freedom‘s actually a feminist novel? Check back tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion.