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The anxiety in Franzen's Freedom

Most discussions and debates on contemporary fiction inevitably include the male heavyweights, if only to bemoan their longevity, predictability and ubiquity, if not of books, then of media presence: Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie. With the recent hoopla surrounding his long-awaited latest, Jonathan Franzen can now take his place as one of these staples of contemporary western literature. Whilst I can complain about these middle-aged men's domination of the literary market, I can also admit to contradictions in my enjoyment of some of their work. I admired McEwan's Saturday and immediately felt the influence of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, but never got on with Atonement. I like a lot of Roth's work, including The Human Stain, Everyman, and even The Humbling, which was not beloved by the critics. I also loved Franzen's The Corrections. So I waited with anticipation for the much hyped arrival of Freedom. I enjoyed it. It was more 'good' than the 'great' the hype suggested though. In the process of reading it I even learnt about mountain top removal. As I was reaching the end however, one question nagged away at me the relative yet glaring absence of Jessica Berglund, the daughter of the book's main characters, Walter and Patty. Jessica appears intermittently only as a kind of moral voice of the family. When asked why he didn't give Jessica the same space, Franzen said "Jessica is far too happy to be interesting to a novelist," he said, which has one beg the question why include her in the first place? In many ways Jessica, who works as a literary editor, represents her father: earnest, sombre, sober. Freedom gives a voice to her younger brother, Joey, her father, her mother (who is repetitiously referred to as a 'jock'), and Walter's best friend, the ageing rock star, Richard Katz. After a little post-book pondering I came to view Franzen as the thief who stole Jessica's voice only to award it to Katz instead. Yet this motif – of including a studious and not glaringly neurotic young woman, who also work in academia or literature, is a tactic whose purpose is to diminish, berate or ignore her. It is a recurrent motif in the work of these male heavyweights, which tells us much about their own anxieties as writers in the autumn and winter of their lives. Take Ian McEwan. In Saturday, Daisy, the poetic daughter of the main character, Henry Perowne, has been at loggerheads with her grandfather, the aptly named John Grammaticus, himself also a poet and a mentor figure. Daisy also clashes with her father over the Iraq war. Having Daisy lose her dignity, and forcibly her to have to unrobe at the hands of the novel's baddie, Baxter, can be seen as a humbling – she may have some voice in the novel, but the (wordy) daughter who clashes with her grandfather and father cannot get off that easily a message not to get too big for her own boots; or bootees, as her unrobing exhibits her pregnancy. Daisy's subsequent reading of the poem Dover Beach, which moves Baxter so much, is more akin to a young Victorian lady who knows her place 'moving' the poorer class Magwitchian character. Jessica Berglund doesn't have the indignity of removing her clothes in front of her family and the man holding them hostage. Instead she has Richard Katz musing to himself how he doesn't fancy her, uncharacteristic for a man who fancies ever other female who crosses his path, even Jessica's mother, with whom he has an affair. Roth plays this same motif of earnest young woman needing to be taken down a peg(een) or two when the protagonist of The Humbling, 65-year old Simon Axler, converts the former lesbian Pegeen to heterosexuality. Once again, one has to ask, whose humbling is this exactly, as Axler observes Pegeen embracing a feminine identity, allowing him dress her, emerging out of the dressing room with a shy smile and a coquettishness that must make Axler, and Roth, feel more manly to have a female surrender. Roth's portrayal of women is one of the abiding criticisms of his work. In The Human Stain, he finds solace with the female janitor, Faunia, which creates conflict with Delphine, his French feminist academic colleague, (in a plotline similar to another male heavyweight, J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace). Roth seems to humble her when Delphine, placing an personals ad in the New York Review of Books, mistakenly sends the email to the entire department instead. For women writers out there, perhaps there's a challenge to be taken up – to introduce a motif that responds to this recurrent 'humbling' of the young literary female characters that so obviously creates these anxieties in our male heavyweights.

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