Essays

The Big Show: Franzen, Goodman, and ‘The Great American Novel’

By posted at 6:00 am on February 9, 2011 19

covercoverTwo very good and very similar novels came out within months of each other in the summer of 2010:  Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman.

Both are comic-realist novels about recent history, family stories and love stories with subplots about technology and the environment.  Both are ambitious books that attempt to examine the struggles of contemporary America, and both writers model their novels on great 19th Century realist fiction.  While Franzen invokes Tolstoy, Goodman (without ever announcing it) structures her book loosely around Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

Both books are concerned with authenticity, and both books’ protagonists are obsessed with environmental preservation.  In Freedom, Walter Berglund wants to protect songbirds.  In The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine Bach wants to save redwood trees.  In both, the main character’s environmentalism is posed against a second major character’s struggle with aesthetics and materialism.  Both Freedom’s Richard Katz (a musician) and The Cookbook Collector’s George Friedman (an antiquarian) make long speeches about the commodification of beauty.  And in both books, there’s a subplot concerning a dickish and acquisitive young man, aggressive and faux-heroic, who gets into some morally disreputable W. Bush-related business by going after money:  in Freedom it’s war profiteering and contracting, in The Cookbook Collector it’s Internet invasion of privacy and eventually government surveillance.  As Freedom gets much of its ripped-from-the-headlines feel from subplots about the Iraq war, so The Cookbook Collector with the boom and bust of the Internet era.

Both are loose, baggy novels that move from character to character and year to year, with great big imaginative sweeps. Both books center around a family (the Berglunds, the Bachs), both books climax with a love triangle and a trip to a place of environmental crisis, and conclude with a violent death and the consolation of marriage.  Both novels have big canvases that the writers attack with comic gusto.  (The Cookbook Collector moves from boardrooms in Boston to communal houses in Berkeley; it makes you cry about 9/11 and makes you think about David Hume and culinary history.)  Both novels are really books about value, both material and moral.  These are serious books that question value in American life in light of the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Iraq war.

Both are addictive reading. I couldn’t put either one down. And both books were well received.   Reviewers really liked The Cookbook Collector.  They marveled at its intelligence and grace.  It was called “a feast of love;” critics said that Goodman “makes us care,” and that her books was “enchanting and sensuous,” and “flush with warmth and color.”  Critics were somewhat more divided over Freedom, but those who liked it liked it a lot:  “A masterpiece of American fiction,” said Sam Tanenhaus in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, “an indelible portrait of our times,” said Michiko Kakutani in the daily.  And this difference in response mimicked the gap between the two books’ pre-publication hype.  Franzen’s was sold as “The Great American Novel” (that’s what Esquire called it), while The Cookbook Collector was (I guess) just another good book by Allegra Goodman.

Why such a big gap?

covercoverI’m sure that a lot of the hype probably has to do with vagaries of the publishing marketplace, mysterious stuff that I can’t speak to. (Like, how’d they get Obama to buy it?)  A lot of the gap in expectations also has to do with the relative success of the authors’ previous books—on the one hand, there was that long wait after Franzen’s mega big hit The Corrections, on the other, a shorter wait after Goodman’s well-regarded Intuition.  (I, for one, sort of expect that every few years Allegra Goodman will give me another terrific novel to read.)  I’m sure part of the wide gap in response has to do with the genders of the authors.   It’s as impossible to imagine Goodman on the cover of Time magazine as it is impossible to imagine Jonathan Franzen getting called “warm and sensuous.”  (There’s a subtext to the praise of The Cookbook Collector that I quoted above, and it’s: Allegra writes like a girl.)  But the difference also is in the books themselves, in the way they approach their readers and their subjects.  As a hundred critics before me have argued, Franzen’s book swaggered out and demanded the response it achieved.  Its title, its 561 pages, and its sweep boldly proclaimed it a Major Novel and critics had to deal with this claim to Majorness.  If you didn’t compare it to The Great Gatsby or Moby-Dick, that was almost a diss.

Freedom got more negative press than did The Cookbook Collector, but that hardly means it’s a weaker book:  it just got more press period, and probably much of the nastier criticism was just counterreaction to all the noise around the novel’s release.  But the book was part of that noise.  Freedom is a terrific performance, but it also sometimes feels like a guy at a dinner party who’s talking very, very loudly.  It mentions War and Peace so many times you’d have to be a dolt not to get the Tolstoyan ambitions.  And some of the book’s weaknesses are part of its terrible roar.  As Charles Baxter wrote in The New York Review of Books, “Freedom’s ambition is to be the sort of novel that sums up an age and that gets everything into it, a heroic and desperate project. The author all but comes out and says so.”  And Franzen’s characters’ actions are sometimes presented with such broad irony that they better serve his point than his plot.  As a result the characters can seem dimwitted; as Baxter put it, “almost every reader of Freedom will be more worldly than its protagonist and will have anticipated several of its key moments many pages before they arrive.”

Meanwhile, for all its sweep and ambition, The Cookbook Collector comes on quite modestly.  As Ron Charles said in The Washington Post: “Goodman is a fantastically fluid writer, and yet for all her skill, she’s a humble, transparent one who stays out of the way, never drawing attention to her style or cleverness.”  Goodman’s gaze is always on her subjects, and she handles her big themes lightly, submerging them in the lives of the books’ characters.  The Cookbook Collector’s literary elegance is part of what made the book invisible to a broad public, while Franzen’s roaring crassness is part of what made his book such a smash.  He’s just a lot louder than she is.

Which is not to say there aren’t lots of ways in which I prefer Franzen to Goodman.  He’s much more interested in the dark side of life than she is.  He writes with sympathy and intelligence about addictions and failed marriages, career failures, and failures in raising children—almost everyone in Freedom is some kind of anxious wreck.  Meanwhile The Cookbook Collector has a pretty uniformly well-adjusted, privileged cast (that’s what you get for following Jane Austen, the lives of the smartest rich girls in the county), most of whom are either making a mint in computers or are enjoying tenure at MIT.  The exception is Goodman’s heroine, Jessamine, the family flake, a confused grad student at Berkeley (egads!), but by the time the novel is done she’s found love, money, and has embarked on a promising academic career.

When people have sex in Freedom, heads bang on walls.  In The Cookbook Collector it’s a finger on the chest and then fade out.  (Goodman does write a very sexy scene of a girl eating a peach.) There are gorgeous flights of imagination in The Cookbook Collector—like the scene where George stumbles upon the collection of its title, 17th Century manuscripts stored in the cabinets and ovens of a musty Bay Area kitchen:

For a moment, he thought she was searching for the iodine, and then he saw them.  Leather-bound, cloth-bound, quartos and folios, books of every size.  The cabinets were stocked with books.  Not a dish or cup in sight.  Only books.  Sandra bent and opened the lower cabinets.  Not a single pot or pan.  Just books.  She stood on a chair to reach the cabinet above the refrigerator.  Books there as well.

George stepped away from the sink without noticing that he had left the water running.  Injury forgotten, he gazed in awe.  He leaned against the counter and stared at bindings of hooped leather, red morocco, black and gold.  Sandra opened a drawer and there lay Le Livre de Cuisine. She opened the drawer below and took out The Accomplisht Cook: or, The Art and Mystery of Cookery.  He opened the book at random:  Section XIII: The First Section for dressing of fish, Shewing divers ways, and the most excellent, for dressing Carps, either Boiled, Stewed, Broiled, Roasted, or Baked, &c.  He had never tried to roast a carp.

But there’s nothing in The Cookbook Collector like the scene in Freedom where a young adulterous husband digs through his own shit for the wedding ring he has swallowed:

He knelt on the cool floor and peered into the bowl at the four large turds afloat in it, hoping to see the glint of gold immediately.  The oldest turd was dark and firm and noduled, the ones from deeper inside him were paler and already dissolving a little.  Although he, like all people, secretly enjoyed the smell of his own farts, the smell of his shit was something else.  It was so bad as to seem evil in a moral way.  He poked one of the softer turds with a fork, trying to rotate it and examine its underside, but it bent and began to crumble, clouding the water brown, and he saw that this business of the fork had been a wishful fantasy.  The water would soon be too turbid to see a ring through, and if the ring broke free of its enveloping matter it would sink to the bottom and possibly go down the drain.  He had no choice but to lift out each turd and run it through fingers, and he had to do this quickly, before things got too waterlogged.  Holding his breath, his eyes watering furiously, he grasped the most promising turd and let go of his most recent fantasy, which was that one hand would suffice.  He had to use both hands, one to hold the shit, and the other to pick through it.  He retched once, drily, and got to work, pushing his fingers into the soft and body-warm and surprisingly lightweight log of excrement.

Goodman glides through her fiction, while with Franzen, it’s always a triple lutz with a camel.  When Jessamine Bach joins an environmental group it’s the prosaically named Save the Trees, and like a real environmentalist, she sits in a treetop canopy to preserve the redwood from loggers.  (That scene in the redwood is beautifully turned.)  When Walter Berglund starts an environmental group, it’s called the Cerulean Warbler Mountain Trust, and Walter’s got a scheme wherein he’ll give over some pristine wilderness to a coal company and then after they’ve removed the mountaintops and fouled the groundwater, he’ll replant the place as a songbird preserve.

coverFranzen has written a lot about his break from difficult, satiric post-modernism.  In his essay “Mr. Difficult,” he pronounced his split from his one-time hero William Gaddis.  He doesn’t want to write really, really hard intellectual books anymore.  Thing is, Franzen’s over-the-top satire and his pressing of his characters’ faces into humiliation and into the meaningless void—these things really do derive in Franzen from Gaddis, from a dire, post-Beckett aesthetic.  Part of what makes Franzen so exciting to his admirers and so frustrating to his critics is his attempt to wed whacked-out and dark postmodern irony to sympathetic humanist realism.  And in this unlikely marriage problems do arise.  In a crazy-ass postmodern spoof, you can have a character dig through his shit or have an environmentalist join up with a coal company, and this can be part of the cold icy whacky comic mayhem (like in Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own, a novel about a set of interrelated lawsuits, where the cars are called Isuyu and Sosume).  But in a realist novel, this kind of irony can shade into something ugly, can make characters seem plastic and thin and (as Charles Baxter argued) a little stupid.  Franzen’s willingness to abase his characters often reads as if he holds them in contempt.

Part of the difference in reception of the novels might actually have something to do with the two books’ Jewishness—and here we come to another one of the weird parallels between the books.  Both of these are very Jewish novels, and their subplots about Jewishness mirror each other.  In both books, mothers hide their Jewishness from their children, children discover their secret family histories, and these discoveries of secret histories coincide with violent global convulsions.

In Freedom, Patty Berglund, Walter’s wife, keeps her Jewish identity a secret from her kids, and her son Joey (the one who digs through his own shit, the one who gets mixed up in phony arms deals in the Iraq war) discovers his Jewishness late in the novel.  After he makes this discovery of his identity, Joey gets involved with in a scary Jewish family—one that might be modeled on the Kristols or the Wolfowitzes, rich Jews whose interest in Joey’s Jewishness is almost as creepy as their interest in right wing politics, Jews who distribute false information that leads to war.

In The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine and Emily Bach’s mother is dead, but her Jewishness is similarly locked away from them, kept hidden from the girls by their father.  They both learn about their Jewishness at a post-9/11 memorial service—the Bach sisters are related not to assimilated or political Jews, but to Hassidic Jews, in fact to the Bialostoker Rebbe himself.  Goodman’s treatment of Jewishness has a completely different purpose than does Franzen’s.  For Franzen, Jewishness marks another opportunity to explore self-loathing and to memorialize the times—here, to skewer neo-conservatives.  In The Cookbook Collector, the presence of Jews—of rabbis—allows the novel to contemplate value in a whole new light.  Religious value is a central value for Goodman, and one that underpins the whole of her work.  In this book, it is contemplated alongside other human values—material, aesthetic, filial, and romantic.  And all of these things, in Goodman’s eyes, have worth.

Twenty years ago, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay called “E Unibus Plurum: Television and U.S. Fiction,” in which he worried that the irony of his favorite post-moderns (Pynchon, Delillo, Gaddis, Barth) had been co-opted in his generation of post-modernists’ lives by television, in particular leering, cynical “I know this is just an ad” kind of TV ads.  Wallace worried that his generation of post-modernists had fallen into a trap, a reflexive, cold irony he called “televisual,” and he described this irony’s gaze as “the girl who’s dancing with you but who would rather be dancing with someone else.”  Allegra Goodman, of course, is in no danger of falling into this trap.  At the end of The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine Bach’s newly discovered uncle, Rabbi Helfgott, presides over her and George Friedman’s marriage, and it’s clear that the book believes in God and in love, and that Goodman’s fiction exists in a stable, meaningful, social world.  Her subtle literary ironies are of a piece with this large-hearted view.

Meanwhile Franzen’s novel—his whole career, really—is a struggle with this postmodern ironical trap, a struggle to inhabit it and get out of it, to be humane and to be ironic.  At the end of Freedom, when the Berglunds, Walter and Patty, huddle together after 500-plus pages of humiliations, affairs, failures, and addictions, and in the ruins of their marriage find some comfort from the horrid world all around—well, it’s proof (if proof was ever needed) of Franzen’s extraordinary gifts.  This final section succeeds movingly.

But he never can quite turn it off, and you feel it, the televisual irony, all throughout the course of Freedom.  Franzen is dancing with you, sure, and with Walter and Patty as well, and his moves are wild and Tony Manero dazzling—but he’s not wholeheartedly on the floor with his partners.  Allegra Goodman loves her characters—they absorb her attention as if she could wish for nothing more, and she offers them intimately to her readers, so much so that the author herself all but vanishes.  Franzen’s characters meanwhile exist somewhere beneath the glory of his prose.  His book is not so much addressed to the intimate reader, it’s addressed to the judges and the crowds.  His characters are anxious, but he is supremely confident.  He has managed to shuck the difficulties of postmodern fiction while retaining much of its cool and distant pose.

David Foster Wallace had lots of moral and aesthetic problems with televisual irony—he ends that essay about it with an interesting call for earnestness—but he also noted how well it sells.  Half a year after its release, The Cookbook Collector, full of earnestness and love, is between hardcover and paperback editions, and it’s hard to find at your local bookstore. Meanwhile, cool and calculating Freedom sits high on the bestseller list, alone among its literary contemporaries.  That’s some kind of triumph.





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19 Responses to “The Big Show: Franzen, Goodman, and ‘The Great American Novel’”

  1. David
    at 11:21 am on February 9, 2011

    This essay comes to The Millions on the very day the NYT has an essay on gender in reviewing, publishing, etc.

    http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/08/gender-balance-and-book-reviewing-a-new-survey-renews-the-debate/?ref=books

  2. Agri Ismaïl
    at 11:46 am on February 9, 2011

    Great piece, especially like the way you pinpoint the fact that Franzen always feels like the author of Freedom, never letting the characters get out from under his prose (especially clunky during the journal that Patty writes). Although he got a lot of things right, that was something I could not overlook. And you are also correct that the length of the novel (though it wasn’t very long at all compared to Infinite Jest or the Recognitions) gave it gravitas as an “important novel”

    I also thought that the covers for the Corrections and Intuition show perfectly the way that publishers don’t take female authors seriously which leads readers to not take such books seriously which means that highbrow novels by women don’t sell so then they’re not published as much &c. &c. It’s of course more complicated than the fact that a lot of people wouldn’t be caught dead reading a book with the cover that Intuition has, but cosmetic arguments tend to be the most striking.

  3. Edan
    at 2:17 pm on February 9, 2011

    I really enjoyed this essay. Thanks!

  4. paula
    at 3:56 pm on February 9, 2011

    This is a fantastic essay. I spent last summer reading the four novels that comprise The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard and could not believe how little known she is and why these books aren’t being compared to War and Peace, but instead are referred to as “like a comfy sofa” or something inane like that. Female authors are often marketed in way to not be taken seriously, or so it seems- but “cozy, warm” etc…. And it’s a shame. I must ad, I loved Freedom and think Franzen is brilliant- but – it does need to be said- as I believe Francine Prose has argued elsewhere and more thoroughly- women writers are -often- treated differently.

  5. Gary S.
    at 5:12 pm on February 9, 2011

    Really? Can’t we let literature be about literature and leave the culture war backbiting to the cable news pundits?

  6. Bites: Mel Bosworth’s Book, Sloane Crosley’s Grandmother, Rhys Chatham’s Car Commercial and More | Vol. 1 Brooklyn
    at 8:25 am on February 10, 2011

    [...] Let’s talk about the “Great American Novel,” shall we? [...]

  7. Lyn LeJeune
    at 10:42 am on February 10, 2011

    Now wouldn’t that be rich. A book show with authors yelling at each other. Talking Author Heads!!! Bloom vs. King hahaha
    elijahrising

  8. jmscher
    at 10:57 am on February 10, 2011

    Thanks for the essay, really enjoyed. Reminded me of a quote from an interview in the inaugural issue of the Believer with Susan Straight, “Why is it when a man writes about family it’s a Great Social Novel, and when a women does, it’s a Small Domestic Gem?”

  9. Morgan
    at 4:38 pm on February 10, 2011

    Why don’t more women writers take on male pseudonyms? If a work is capable of standing on its own regardless of the name on the cover, what does it matter with regard to the name used?

    I realize this makes book tours difficult, but to that I say, “So what?” Why wouldn’t I, as a male writer, collaborate with my niece if I wanted to write something targeting women? We simply plop a name on the cover, a marketing piece for the publishing houses to use, and send my niece out there as a fresh young face for the book.

    If, as you propose, great literature ought to stand on its own but it battles the marketing machine of modern publishing, I say subvert that machine. Put whatever name on the cover will generate good sales for good literature.

  10. Edan Lepucki
    at 7:39 pm on February 10, 2011

    I feel like this essay was most useful in its discussion of the formal ways that Franzen’s and Goodman’s novels are different from one another. The gender issue is also important (one I think about a lot myself), but I was most taken with the interpretation of Franzen’s approach to realism and character. Again: thanks!

  11. Kristel
    at 12:13 am on February 11, 2011

    “Why don’t more women writers take on male pseudonyms? ”

    Because buying into the default authority of a male name is just as sickening as overlooking female-written books.

  12. Pooja Pillai
    at 7:45 am on February 11, 2011

    Brilliant essay. This is something I’ve thought about a lot, especially since the furore a few months back over the New York Times’ alleged preference for White Male authors. But it’s also something I’ve encountered otherwise, when male friends disregard even names like Margaret Atwood or Doris Lessing or Nadine Gordimer, simply because they’re female.

  13. Wendy Nelson Tokunaga
    at 12:38 pm on February 11, 2011

    I loved “The Cookbook Collector” but I think part of the problem is with the cover and the title. They’re not designed to “cross over” to the general (read male) reader. You’ve got pretty fruit and a title that sounds like one of those “women’s fiction” books that includes recipes you can make at home (not that there’s anything wrong with those types of books!). Yet I think this book could have mass appeal and be a bigger hit based on its content. It will be interesting to see if they change the cover for the paperback.

  14. Doris Friedensohn
    at 5:10 pm on February 11, 2011

    This is such a rich, dense reckoning with works of two writers who have received plenty of attention but yield new insights to a highly discerning critic. While I’m a great fan of Franzen’s, this essay helps clarify sources of my enthusiasm and, even more important, my impatience. As for Goodman, let me just say that thanks to Gabriel Brownstein’s fine discussion, I’m ordering The Cookbook Collector as soon as I finish this comment.

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  16. stephen
    at 4:00 am on February 14, 2011

    “The Great American Novel” by William Carlos Williams

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    at 11:16 am on February 21, 2011

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