Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010)
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011)
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (Back Bay Books, 2011)
Strangeness and oddity will sooner harm than justify any claim to attention, especially when everyone is striving to unite particulars and find at least some general sense in the general senselessness. Whereas an odd man is most often a particular and isolated case. Is that not so?
SO ASKS THE NARRATOR of The Brothers Karamazov in the opening note, “From the Author,” an effort to justify a novel about a character as “strange” and “odd” as Alyosha.
It is not so, the narrator continues, because the assumption is mistaken: “an odd man is ‘not always’ a particular and isolated case, but, on the contrary, it sometimes happens that it is precisely he, perhaps, who bears within himself the heart of the whole, while the other people of his epoch have all for some reason been torn away from it for a time by some kind of flooding wind.” The “heart of the whole” implies something like the “general sense,” the central concern facing a people and the mood that follows this concern. The odd man captures more than the average traits of a society, and he is more than a representative sample; he captures something—a question, an idea, a spiritual state—which all share, all have a stake in.
In what ways could a strange and odd character connect with “the heart of the whole”? In the Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha provides a center of moral reflection, and a conscience before which other characters bare their souls. Beyond Dostoyevsky, this connection can take place in other ways. The odd character could be a lonely traveler and become, unwittingly, the sole witness of a great crime: Marlow in Heart of Darkness. Or he may even be Kurtz himself, the strange incarnation of an evil which is somehow the logical product of the civilization which reared him: “All Europe,” Marlow tells us, “contributed to the making of Kurtz.” Or else the character might be peculiarly positioned and able to make an observation. Huck Finn’s social marginality helps him become a unique witness to the great sin of his time: slavery.
The point is that the odd character somehow reveals a deeper meaning of his age. And he does this not by virtue of being average, but of being unique.
These lines from Dostoyevsky came to mind as I read through the latest harvest from our last great generation of American novelists—Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, and the late David Foster Wallace. They may not yet be canonical, but they are now a generation, and for each, this new novel is the first after the big, breakthrough book: Franzen’s Freedom, after his National Book Award–winning The Corrections; Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, after the Pulitzer Prize–winning Middlesex; and Foster Wallace’s unfinished The Pale King, after Infinite Jest, which has achieved the type of prestige that only adoring readers, and not awards, have the power to bestow. I thought about Dostoyevsky as it dawned on me that all these post-fame novels feature characters who are neither odd nor strange.
Of the six main characters in Freedom and the three in The Marriage Plot, all are white, middle class, college educated, and unchurched. There are no eccentrics in the bunch; they are all more or less relatable to you and me. The characters in The Pale King work for the IRS, which perhaps makes them slightly odder (and one of them is an evangelical Christian). Even so, there is a notable bias toward the average in all three novels. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is noticeable, especially from a group of writers who have previously written about, to take a few examples, a hermaphrodite (Eugenides), the leader of a prolife commune (Franzen), and a sculptor who sculpts with his own shit (Foster Wallace). Without the oddness, what happens to the “whole”?
It is clear that at least two of these writers harbor the immense ambition to capture that whole. His famous disavowal in an essay for Harper’s to the contrary, Franzen is most definitely still trying to write a great American social novel. You only pick a title like Freedom if you’re swinging for the fences. If you’re aiming to paint a landscape of American society, what bigger frame is there? Foster Wallace, whose ambition was always to write about “what it feels like to live,” instead of offering “a relief from what it feels like to live” (as he wrote in an essay on Dostoyevsky), chose the IRS as his subject because enduring boredom is “the key to modern life,” and IRS agents know how to do it. As for Eugenides, although The Marriage Plot doesn’t have as wide a canvas as Middlesex, he has still created a hero who is restlessly in search of a revelation of some sort—if not for his time, at least for his own life.
Of all three writers, Franzen most explicitly yearns for some sort of unity among particulars, some sort of larger picture. “This was what was keeping me awake at night,” says the hero of Freedom, the environmental lawyer Walter Berglund:
This fragmentation. Because it’s the same problem everywhere. It’s like the internet, or cable TV—there’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli.
Is Franzen’s “center” the same thing as Dostoyevsky’s “whole”? It is, insofar as it would be a locus of reflection and self-understanding for society. But Franzen doesn’t offer a deeper analysis of the concept in Freedom. This passage is as close as we get to a definition. It is at best the expression of a desire for one to exist.
No character, in any of the ways that a character could, embodies or reveals anything about a center. A sense of resignation haunts every page: there doesn’t even seem to be hope for a new center. The context of the above speech is a long conversation in which Walter lays out a comprehensive critique of the pro-growth economic policies of the postindustrial West and their devastating effects on the planet. Any solution would require some sort of center, as he describes it. Yet Walter can’t even convince his neighbors to keep their pet cats indoors, so that they don’t kill and eat endangered birds. All the novel offers us are characters who learn to cope without a center, in a world that has more freedom than it does order.
Walter is a socially conscious lawyer with a few radical political ideas: he believes in the anti-population-growth policies of the Club of Rome and sees religion as a “big drug for people who don’t have economic opportunity.” Apart from these un-American views, however, he is an upstanding citizen, a good provider, an earnest fellow. He is an environmentalist and he loves birds.
Patty, Walter’s wife, does not have any marked political views. She was a basketball player in college and brings a residual athletic spirit to everything she does. This, as might be expected, has consequences both good and bad. She is also a hands-on mom, involved (too much) in the lives of her children, and an active member of her slowly gentrifying Saint Paul neighborhood.
The central knot of the novel is a love triangle between Walter, Patty, and Walter’s best friend, the musician Richard Katz, who is the closest the book comes to an odd character. Katz begins as a punk rocker whose music is too loud for bourgeois audiences, and he languishes in relative anonymity, living a bohemian life—women, drugs, etc.—until he makes a breakthrough alt-country album titled Nameless Lake. A stereotypical tortured artist, he is the Dionysus to Walter’s Apollo.
This Apollonian-Dionysian dynamic makes the love triangle interesting: Patty is both athletic and emotionally frail (this appeals to Dionysus) and sensibly middle class (which appeals to Apollo). Patty meets both men in college and falls for Katz first. Walter is after her, but she doesn’t give in to his advances until she realizes that Katz’s erratic lifestyle is not something she can handle. But she retains the memory of the door she never opened, and one summer, shacked up in a country house with Katz, Walter away on business, she cheats on her husband.
The pain that Walter suffers because of Patty’s infidelity could be the most transformative element in the story. But it doesn’t transform him as much as it hollows him out, and for six years he lives like a zombie, alone. The pain is due to more than what Patty has done. He also gambles his career on a plan to save an almost-endangered species of bird named the cerulean warbler, native to West Virginia. To do this, he joins forces with a multimillionaire coal-mining tycoon who has a sentimental interest in protecting the bird. He wants to create a habitat for it—but only after he strip-mines the land which will, after it undergoes a process of managed reforestation, become the bird’s home.
As the plot unspools, Franzen manages a tragic reversal by piling disappointment upon humiliation upon tragedy until there’s not much left of Walter. Walter’s fall, when it comes, is the finest moment among all of Franzen’s parallel stories. It is a truly tragic moment, and also the moment when we think that perhaps Walter may be odd and strange, a possible center. Walter’s story unites many of the particulars of our time: he suffers adultery and depression, has seen power and money seduce his son, has thought through our insane politics. But he offers us no revelation of any sort. Walter is a survivor: he is able to cope. During the sentimental finale of the novel, he undergoes this near-epiphany:
[Patty’s] eyes weren’t blinking. There was still something almost dead in them, something very far away. She seemed to be seeing all the way through to the back of him and beyond, out into the cold space of the future in which they would both soon be dead, out into the nothingness that…his mother and his father had already passed into, and yet she was looking straight into his eyes, and he could feel her getting warmer by the minute. And so he stopped looking at her eyes and started looking into them, returning their look before it was too late, before his connection between life and what came after life was lost, and let her see all the vileness inside him, all the hatreds of two thousand solitary nights, while the two of them were still in touch with the void in which the sum of everything they’d ever said or done, every pain they’d inflicted, every joy they’d shared, would weigh less than the smallest feather on the wind.
Ultimately, every problem and every joy is weightless: Walter captures the mood of his time, but he doesn’t tell us anything interesting about it. But then, why tell a story so rich in detail, running up and down such vast vistas of contemporary life? To teach us how to deal with contemporary life, and to exhort us to look after each other.
I felt the rush of freedom, the drama of agency, more acutely in the final pages of The Marriage Plot than I did in all of Freedom. Both Franzen and Eugenides create people who, in some scenes, degenerate into types: the jock, the straight-edge, the melancholic genius, the stuck-up pretty girl, the bohemian. A type acts according to its type. But in Eugenides’s novel, you find a character who breaks free of every type, both those imposed by his culture and by his own self-image. The novel ends with our hero’s dizzying realization that his future is not determined, that he is still discovering what he may be, and that none of the ideas he has had about himself are the complete truth about him.
The hero in question is Mitchell Grammaticus, who along with Leonard Bankhead and Madeleine Hanna is graduating from Brown University in 1982. Leonard is Madeleine’s boyfriend, and Mitchell is her unrequited admirer. The love triangle is a ruse: this is a novel about breaking free from false images of love.
The first false image is found in literature. Madeleine writes a senior thesis on the marriage plot in the English novel; her advisor, Professor Saunders, is one of the few anti-critical theory holdouts at Brown. “In Saunders’s opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about…. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel.” Meanwhile, in her seminar on critical theory, discussing Baudrillard and Derrida, Madeleine hears comments like, “Books aren’t about ‘real life.’ Books are about other books.”
Eugenides stakes a middle path; he depicts the traditional professor in a better light than the turtle-necked deconstructionist, but his novel subtly subverts the marriage plot. “Has there ever been a novel where…the other suitor shows up, some guy who’s always been in love with her…but finally realizes that the last thing the woman needs is to get married again, that she’s got more important things to do with her life?” Madeleine is asked at the end of the novel. “No,” she responds. Well, now there is one: the one we’re reading.
The second false image of love is Madeleine herself. Leonard is a depressive and a genius, whose manner of speaking is reminiscent of David Foster Wallace (he also wears a blue bandanna). Describing himself to Madeleine on their first date, he draws up a dictionary definition for the adjectival form of his last name, just as one would imagine Foster Wallace doing: “Bankheadian…. characterized by excessive introspection and worry.” The novel begins on the morning of graduation day, when Madeleine wakes up after a night of heavy drinking. She had broken up with Leonard, and she was drinking to forget him.
Then she learns that Leonard does want to see her again, but at the hospital. True to his definition, he has been admitted to the psych ward. She visits him, and they become a couple once again. The rest of the novel depicts their life together after college, as they draw nearer to the decision to marry. Life together is made difficult by Leonard’s depression, and by the side effects of lithium, which he thinks are keeping him from thinking and feeling at his full potential.
All this while, Mitchell is still in love with Madeleine, as he has been since his freshman year. Upon graduation, he tries to forget her, and decides to spend a year traveling Europe with his friend Larry, before both he and Larry go to India for a job assisting a professor for a few months.
While he is fleeing Madeleine, Mitchell discovers something to seek. He is already intrigued by religion—he becomes a religious studies major after he realizes that “almost every writer I was reading for my classes believed in God.” A professor tells him he should pursue graduate study. While in Europe, he comes across the book Something Beautiful for God, detailing Mother Teresa’s work in India. He reads that “The bodies of the Home for Dying Destitutes, broken, diseased, were the bodies of Christ, divinity immanent in each one.” He sets out for India a few months earlier than planned, to put in some time as a volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity.
The fact that Mitchell comes to know his “ultimate concern”—as Paul Tillich would call it—is what sets him apart from Leonard and Madeleine at the end of the book. Both young men break free of Madeleine—but Mitchell does so because he is seeking something beyond her. Pushing against reality to see if it will push back, Mitchell works with the poorest of the poor, and the climax of his stay in India is the day he helps another volunteer to clean the body of an old man with a tumor in his scrotum “like a pink balloon.” As they lather the man, “not for a moment did Mitchell believe that the cancerous body on the slab was the body of Christ.” Yet by the time he returns to the States, Mitchell has started going to church—to Quaker meetings.
Mitchell thus becomes odd, yet whatever is revealed to him is revealed only for him: “Though the Quakers believed that Christ revealed himself to every person, without intermediaries, and that each person was able to take part in a continuing revelation, the things Mitchell saw weren’t revelations of a universal significance.” The significance is only for him.
He weeps at the end of a meeting as he comes to understand that Madeleine is not to be his wife, and that “he would never go to divinity school…wasn’t going to be a monk, a minister, or even a scholar.” Instead, he connects with his “Deep Self,” and feels “as if he might do some good in the world.” We are left with a thrilling sense of potential and freedom—but only for Mitchell. It’s a private revelation, not the heart of the whole.
The Pale King is an unfinished work, a collection of fragments gathered into a neat pile and left by David Foster Wallace on his desk before he committed suicide in 2008. In his editor’s note, Michael Pietsch writes that along with the manuscript, Foster Wallace left “a few broad notes about the novel’s trajectory…. But there was no list of scenes, no designated closing point, nothing that could be called a set of directions or instructions….” Among the parts, we have chapters which deal with the lives of various mild-mannered IRS agents—Claude Sylvanshine, Lane Dean Jr., Chris Fogle—as well as a few other minor characters. But the fragments do not add up to a whole novel.
Yet even within these fragments, Chris Fogle’s narrative—told in the novella-length fragment 22—captures the heart of the whole. Not because he’s lived through the traumas of his time, like Walter, though he has. Nor because he’s had a moment of revelation, like Mitchell, though he’s had that, too. Fogle captures the whole because this revelation did not remain private, but helped him to make sense of his past, of his society, and of what to do with this life. “It’s always possible that the 25,834 words so far of my own life-experience won’t seem relevant or make sense to anyone but me,” he writes, before effectively affirming its relevance by finishing his story.
Fogle is aware of his averageness. He looks back on his life and makes comments like, “I expect that this sort of regret is typical,” and “So we never really talked about it, which I doubt is all that unusual in these sorts of cases.” But his is a dark normality: he is a “nihilist” and a “wastoid,” a druggie layabout without direction, like many of his generation. As he tells it, he is a typical product of the American 1970s. He name-checks several cultural markers: Deep Throat, Howard Cosell, Watergate. He suffers his parents’ divorce and smokes too much pot. But he becomes odd only when he breaks out of his nihilism.
He achieves this thanks to a series of traumatic events—his father’s death, his experiments with a drug called Obetrol—which lead up to one key encounter with a Jesuit priest who happens to be filling in for another professor at DePaul University on the last day of an advanced accounting course. Fogle goes into the room by accident—he was headed for a poli-sci class—but the combined effect of intelligent, orderly students, a no-nonsense presentation of serious academic material, and the priest’s stirring speech at the end (“I wish to inform you that the accounting profession…is, in fact, heroic”) is Fogle’s ending his “wastoid” life and embracing the priest’s injunction: “You are called to account.”
The priest, of course, isn’t speaking directly to Fogle. But the moment is of such importance to his life that Fogle can’t help but compare it to the religious experience of an evangelical Christian girl he met in college. She entered a church right as the preacher made a stirring sermon addressed to “someone out there,” and she took it to be providentially addressed to her in particular. Fogle reflects:
It’s true that her story was stupid and dishonest, but that doesn’t mean the experience she had in the church that day didn’t happen, or that its effects on her weren’t real…. I think that the truth is probably that the enormous, sudden, dramatic unexpected life-changing experiences are not translatable or explainable to anyone else, and this is because they really are unique and particular, though not unique in the way the Christian girl believed. This is because their power isn’t just a result of the experience itself, but also of the circumstances in which it hits you, of everything in your previous life-experience which has led up to it and made you exactly who and what you are when the experience hits you.
Fogle’s quasi-conversion is not less mysterious because he was, in his words, “primed” for it by previous experiences. What Fogle discovers is that life can, after a period of trial, begin to make sense.
Foster Wallace seems to be interested in these epiphanic, “religious” experiences, and unlike Fogle, he wants to explain or at least describe them. In another fragment, Lane Dean Jr., an evangelical Christian, has been trying to convince his girlfriend to have an abortion. She doesn’t want one. He feels ashamed of himself, and desperate, as she sits silently before him after she has told him her decision. Then we get a moment of epiphany:
He was looking…at where the downed tree’s branches seemed to bend so sharply just under the shallows’ surface when he was given then to know that through all this frozen silence he’d despised he had, in truth, been praying all the while, or some little part of his heart he could not know or hear had, for he was answered now with a type of vision, what he later would call within his own mind a vision or moment of grace. He was not a hypocrite, just broken and split off like all men. Later on, he believed that what happened was he had a moment of almost seeing them both as Jesus might see them—as blind but groping, wanting to please God despite their inborn fallen nature.
Foster Wallace’s characters find the truth about their lives in moments like these, when they are able to take a different, higher perspective and redirect themselves in a more fulfilling direction.
But Fogle’s epiphany is unique, because whatever he might say, it isn’t only for him. His life, however “average,” is actually odd, and captures the heart of the whole, because, as an unknown narrator declares in a later fragment, the ability to deal with boredom is “the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.” Elsewhere, a former IRS employee named “David Wallace” comments:
The really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful…. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all of our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling….
The fear of dullness is actually a “terror of silence,” and most of us flee into a sea of information in order to avoid it. The successful IRS agent is a hero because he is forced, by his job, to face that fear. He is both a witness of, and resistant to, the emptiness at the heart of our civilization.
In a feature published last year in New York magazine on the interlacing lives of Franzen, Foster Wallace, Eugenides, and others, Evan Hughes claimed that “the debate that has occupied Eugenides’s generation for twenty-five years [is] about what exactly fiction is for and how a crew of literary newcomers might revive the American novel, which seemed to many of them in danger of irrelevance.” I can’t help but wonder whether, in a bid to become relevant, Eugenides’s generation has decided to bet on the law of averages and tell stories about “average” people. This would yield a great American novel that uses a documentary method and ends up being something like a chronicle or cultural catalogue. Freedom sometimes comes close to this.
But even if this was the strategy, happily, all three writers failed at it. The great American novel has become (as James Wood observed) the great American social novel, and such a work, by virtue of its ambition, is after the revelation of the “whole,” or “center,” or “key to modern life.” And such a revelation happens through a character who is or becomes odd. What is curious about The Pale King is that such a revelation and such an oddity take the form of a religious experience—one that reveals something not just for a single person, but for all of society. As such, the unfinished novel could be said to be the synthesis of the frustration of Freedom and the epiphany of The Marriage Plot. It’s as if, having exhausted the documentary method, the great American novelists are in search of a different way of tapping into the heart of the whole. Sadly, as The Pale King will never be finished, the synthesis is stillborn. We can only hope some other writer will take up the theme.
—Reviewed by Santiago Ramos