Some negative qualities are sexier than others. Literature groans under the weight of moody, narcissistic and casually cruel characters that readers can’t help but forgive as they’re so damned charming. We tolerate rogues, scoundrels and other assorted miscreants because they’re the most fun to read about, even if they’re going to eventually break our hearts. In non-fiction we even allow ourselves to become infatuated with tiresomely-hip misanthropes, as if being cynical is the same thing as being interesting. Despite our repeated misplacing of affections, though, the one type of character we have trouble warming to is the unsympathetic curmudgeon. The crank. The grouser. The sourpuss. The Jonathan Franzen.
It’s reductive to look too intently for evidence of autobiography in a 576-page novel that’s about everything from marriage to gentrification to the Iraq War, but of the four main characters in Freedom, it initially seemed as if the closest thing to an author surrogate was Robert Katz, Franzen’s portrait of an indie musician suddenly finding himself uncomfortably popular after decades toiling in commercial obscurity. As time has passed, however, and the novelist has become an online symbol of musty, irritable Ludditism for his tendency to fume about social media and make carelessly needling remarks, it’s become apparent that a better candidate is Robert’s college roommate Walter Berglund: a conscientious man deeply concerned about the environment, clinging to values incompatible with the modern world.
Over the course of Freedom, its narrative leapfrogging from character to character to document a span of decades, Walter’s passion curdles into a sore-headed rage which culminates in a televised rant indistinguishable from a breakdown. Like Franzen, Walter has important points to make about overpopulation, overdevelopment and the avian genocide perpetrated by domestic housecats, but he consistently gets in his own way. Even though he’s right, he’s so much of a prig that people resent his warnings. Franzen’s gift for plotting and the lyricism of his words are rightfully praised, but his greatest asset is his compassion for his characters and ability to make readers feel the same. The tiny miracle he performs is that you still care for Walter. He becomes a curmudgeon but remains thoughtful and sincere, capable of kindness and grace. The same is also true of Jonathan Franzen.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Five