By Jonathan Franzen

Much praise indeed has already been heaped upon this novel, and justly so. It is one of the most deftly written pieces of modern American fiction I have had the pleasure to read; poignant, witty, and deeply insightful, this book offers a tremendous opportunity to anyone who will bend its spine.

We enter the family life of the Berglands, who at first seem very ordinary, but soon reveal themselves as each in their own way a very archetype of American culture; their interactions with each other and those around them providing a perfect vignette by which Franzen can flawlessly satirize the stereotypes he reveals. His use of language is inspired and leaves no one unscathed:

“[T]he Berglunds were the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege.”

The attention to the family as a whole gives way to a portion of first-person-writing-in-third-person voice. The effect seems slightly tried at first, but it becomes obvious that this is partly because the “autobiographer” Patty, is only just learning to speak in her own voice. Doing so, she is somewhat clumsy and self-conscious; perfectly reflecting the emotional state of her character. She describes herself as undefined without competition to shape her, but most of her reflections lead one to think it is rather opposition she craves. Her portrayal of her mother is a singularly unsympathetic, if nevertheless amusing bit of vitriol:

“[T]he Honorable Joyce Emerson, known for her advocacy of open space, poor children, and the Arts. Paradise for Joyce is an open space where poor children can go and do arts at state expense.”

She classifies the rest of her family of origin in similarly wry and less-than-flattering terms, and in her way she has chosen to be as unlike them as humanly possible, less out of any wholehearted contempt for them, as simply having always thrived on antagonism.

When Patty goes away to a mediocre midwestern school to pursue an athletic scholarship she does so as much to enjoy the best chance to exercise her talents as to confound her parents. Once there she meets Walter who finds her contrariety charming instead of exhausting, and her height enchanting (this was a basketball scholarship after all) instead of merely odd. And while she finds his attention pleasant enough, it is really his glamorous rock-star-wanna-be best friend and roommate that Patty finds herself drawn to.

For Walter, is boring. He is the epitome of The Good Man. He has risen from his humble Minnesotan roots to become a lawyer and advocate of zero population growth. An avowed and vocal feminist, he is impressed by Patty’s independence, her toughness, and her body.

“Patty had never been around a man so obviously in love with her. What he and she were secretly talking about, of course, was Walter’s desire to put his hands on her.”

Which in no way diminished his desire to be respectful and honorable at all times. Which ends up being a bit of a drag for their sex life, as time goes by.

Richard, on the other hand, is Walter’s best friend and the Bad Boy to Walter’s Good Man. Richard (Dick?) is a tosser aside of women. A user of drugs and a shirker of responsibility. Though he knows full well that Walter is more-than-half-but-less-than-all-the-way in love with Patty, he agrees to take her and her heaving bosom across country with the intent of letting something “happen” if it was going to. Though nothing does, it remains a point of almost obsessive regret on Patty’s part after she realizes that the Bad Boy would not think wonderful things about her the way the Good Man would, and flees, mid-road trip, to northern Minnesota to give herself body and soul to Walter’s eager love of her.

Married life produces children also struck in an archetypal mold; the dutiful daughter and the favored son. Jessica, like her father, is hardworking and earnest. She does all that she should and;

“was smitten by books[…] not so pretty as to be morally deformed by it.”

Also like her father, she does not seem to have the natural gift for getting what she wants. All that luck has landed on her brother, Joey.

This golden boy seems possessed of all the traits required for great success; he is handsome, witty, charming, and strong-willed, but he has inherited his mother’s need for opposition. Or at least a healthy unwillingness to submit. In this vein he moves out of his parent’s house while still a teenager to live with a girlfriend he is largely ambivalent about, largely because he knows how much the idea will madden his mother.

The family drifts away, not just from the home they had together while the children were small, but from one another as well. As the fabric of the Berglund family begins to unknit itself, Patty no longer knows who she is or what to do with herself. Having chosen to forgo a career and be a devoted homemaker (as opposed to the working mother she had herself) now that the children are no longer small or dependent upon her, she has no idea of her value or purpose. She falls into a serious depression and as she puts it in her autobiography “mistakes were made.”

These archetypal figures work on each other in mysterious but beautiful ways. Patty seems empty-headed and obstinate at first, but exposure to her Good Man and a series of wounds inflicted by the Favored Son and the Bad Boy create in her a greater sensitivity to her own ability to hurt others. The Favored Son continues to get almost exactly what he wants in every possible situation, but rather than spoiling him, it makes him increasingly mindful of the responsibilities this implies.

Jessica becomes rather a bitter figure, retreating increasingly into the distance, and Walter develops and ultimately unleashes a heretofore unseen rage against a system that he has incrementally become entangled with. All those good intentions getting him much further down the road to hell than he can credit. But when he finally chooses to embrace his anger, it is utterly cleansing.

The collapse the family suffers is inevitable, but heartrending nevertheless. Recriminations fly in the face of the beautiful discoveries they were always on the verge of. Each one of the Berglunds seem unable to relinquish their position; a stance that propagates the unwinding of their lives together until they no longer have one at all.

However, they manage, somehow to pick up the threads of their lives, and weave them back together again. The pattern of their family is irrevocably changed, but what emerges is a more honest and fully realized version of each person as well as the clan as a whole.

By the end of this novel, the family and the autobiographer in it have matured and changed enormously. There is a confidence in Patty’s voice that lends her a sympathy that was hard to muster in the earliest chapters of her story. The greater understanding she extends her own family of origin extends itself around all of the Berglunds like a mantle. And with this, we have the freedom to love them unstintingly.

Recommended