Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Patty and authority in Jonathan Franzen's FREEDOM

Spoilers exist in this document.

Putting aside all the people who hate Jonathan Franzen for having been born, for getting another book contract, for being anticipated and welcomed by many reviewers, for having lots of fans, for being forgiven by Oprah, for writing novels with sometimes unlikable characters (unlikable by being wrong, judgmental, alive on the page, imperfect, not behaving as the reader might like, just as people in our own real lives are wont to do), Freedom, having been described as being about "how we live," has that element, certainly, but also lives and breathes its own air.

It's not a documentary, after all, but is a family story, and its characters should not be held as archetypes, but must be taken at face value as they act within their story. As readers, we're shown glimpses of the Berglund saga by four distinct characters: Walter, Patty, Joey, and Richard. It cannot be over-emphasized that these distinct characters are not us, and we must not make the mistake of projecting them onto ourselves nor ourselves onto them.They do not stand for "all" men and women in contemporary America.

Point of view, the deliberate choices Franzen has made to construct this novel, are central to its meaning. Patty's portion of the novel is her own written narrative, while Walter's, Richard's, and Joey's stories are more conventional, told by a third person limited omniscient narrator. Each of the men's stories are shaped by
their relationships with women who threaten their own relationship with Patty. Each character's fate is tied to Patty. She is at the center.

Patty's story is told through her "autobiography," which seems to be written with Walter as her intended audience. Her whole confessional, then, written under the auspices of therapy (and where within the novel the person "therapist' is entirely expunged from the story), a state of mind where Patty is searching for the reasons and motivations for her life's choices. She naturally starts at the crux of self-identification, adolescence, and the events (the date rape, the parental neglect) that her parents insist she repress. Consequently, the adult, the depressed, the in-counseling Patty creates a narrative that paints her impulsive marriage to Walter, with all the missteps along the way and beyond, as an inevitable course of events. She writes this story from third person omniscience, establishing herself as a character or actor within her own story. Readers are not privy to anything but Patty's construction and editing, especially not the conversations with her therapist that sparked the need for the autobiography.In a way, this choice of POV gives her text an added authority with in the novel.

She is the writer here, but third-person narration obfuscates her authorship. This tactic shows Patty's internal conflicts as well as her ability to manipulate the novel's central characters; because she knows Walter so well, she knows her story will be convincing, and she turns out to have correctly judged the outcome. Otherwise, why would Walter be so reluctant to read the second volume? He is well aware of the sway of Patty's voice, and he holds out as an act of rebellion and self-preservation. Franzen deliberately crafts Patty's sections to perform a function within the greater text.

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