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Spending time with better people

Welcome to the second session of Salon's Reading Club, everyone. For those just joining us, we're discussing Jonathan Franzen's new novel, "Freedom." Last week, we talked about the first part of the book, "Good Neighbors," through the end of Patty's "autobiography" (pages 1 through 187). This week, we'll consider half of the second part, "2004," reading through the end of the chapter titled "Enough Already" (pages 191 to 382).

[. . .]

All of this raises a question I've been wanting to ask since we started, concerning an observation people often make about Franzen's (and many other authors') characters, which is that they are "unlikable." I confess, I've grown to hate such remarks. It makes me feel like we're all back in grammar school, talking about which kids are "nice" and which kids are "mean." It's a willfully naive and blinkered way to approach a work of literature.

James Wood, in his book "How Fiction Works," wrote that this complaint implies that "artists should not ask us to try to understand characters we cannot approve of -- or not until after they have firmly and unequivocally condemned them." That we might recognize a character's unappealing qualities while simultaneously seeing life through her eyes, "and that this moving out of ourselves into realms beyond our daily experience might be a moral and sympathetic education of its own kind," doesn't seem to occur to far too many readers. Wood calls this sort of criticism, so common in Amazon reader reviews, a "contagion of moralizing niceness."

Patty is not nice. She does some bad things, and she can be grouchy and bitter. I wouldn't necessarily want her as a friend, but then that's not really an option because she's not a real person. She's a literary character -- which means it's not imperative that we take a moral stance on every single thing she does. Literature is an experiment of the imagination, and if we don't try to leave behind our contemporary compulsion to pass judgment on everything and everyone when we enter into that experiment, then we are the ones who lose out.

Speaking of "beyond our daily experience," I for one found Richard's views on "female bullshit" fascinating and astringently delightful. Few women ever get a glimpse of the inside of a consummate womanizer's mind, and I, like axelrod, underlined the passage where a client's flirtatious wife makes what she thinks are challenging remarks about Richard's music and then "waited, with parted lips and a saucy challenge in her eyes, to see how her presence -- the drama of being her -- was registering." How I love that miniature, well-barbed character sketch!

So, fellow Salon Reading Club members, what do you think? Do you find the characters in "Freedom" likable or not -- and does it matter? (Laura Miller, “Why must a novel’s characters be likeable?,” Salon, 11 Sept. 2010)


You give those who complain about having to spend so much time with unlikeable characters, quite the scolding. You sick an erudite critic on them, and equate them all to Amazon-commenter slosh. I admit to appreciating spending time with characters who show what it is to live better than I currently now do. Some of this same desire is expressed in the novel, toward the end (please forgive the small cheat), when certain characters address why they seek Walter out (though you probably thought these imperfect meanderers, just adults, the mature turn-away from implausible mary janes). MY desire for someone better, at least, was motivated FOR a desire for moral / sympathetic education, something I thought I found less of in this author's knowing descent than I might of if I spent more time with someone who found means to be generous-hearted and open in a world in dispirit / defeat, alongside an author / narrator (or author-directed narrator, if you prefer) who himself knows the inner-dialogue of such people best for its matching his own. (Note: I do like Franzen, though, just not as much as I like, say, Barbara Kingsolver, who I just sense to be a grander, more beautiful human being.) Maybe there are others out there amongst the complainers who aren't simply interested in spending more time before their own mirrors? And let's be fair: these people ARE (meant to be) us. Be sure, many of those who think they see inferiors are just being given a taste of how an intelligent, disinterested other could show them to actually be. Franzen would meet them, ignore their petty judgments and see their own Pattyness pretty plainly -- and this no doubt is part of Franzen's point, and perhaps, stern intent ("You are, you are, you are -- flawed [with some upside]; you are how others see you, but also how others made you to be.").

RE: "She's a literary character -- which means it's not imperative that we take a moral stance on every single thing she does. Literature is an experiment of the imagination, and if we don't try to leave behind our contemporary compulsion to pass judgment on everything and everyone when we enter into that experiment, then we are the ones who lose out."

I guess we see here more evidence of why you dumped hate on "Reality Hunger" -- that is, his "Fiction these days is just clothed biography; why not just go for the even realer stuff?, attend most closely to those with enough self-trust to bypass the well-guarded avenue to mostly hide?" In my judgment, if you experience a character as not just believable, but real; if you experience reading a novel as being proxy to, involved with, actual happenings -- i.e., it's really real while you read it; you follow along because someone's situation is so convincing it looks to delineate your own fate -- then when someone thereafter spooks out at you for your misapprehension, like Laura here does, consider that SHE may be the one inherently in the wrong. What is happening here is as close to real as Franzen could make it, arguably so that whatever moral stances / considerations, disappointments and accomplishments it encourages / delineates could also be applied to that oh-so-close simulacrum to the read world we emerge from -- the real world -- so that modest, deflating Franzen would be in the grand position to say, "here's about where we are; here's what it is to be one moral point in our seemingly played-out but actually still possibly -- thank god -- ex potentia moral universe," and have others skip argument, discussion, right to feeling their way to solutions / renewal. Some fiction IS really just reality once more before us, with some tweaking, and with a guide -- we'd sense if it was just one ultimately limited / skewed / directed someone else's experiment / opinion. Yes of course, though, we shouldn't just judge so we don't have to courageously, imaginatively, reflect and explore -- Laura's right about that.

Link: Why must a novel’s character be likeable? (Salon)


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