Thursday, December 1, 2011

Problem of Plenty

The first half of a person’s life is all about the background story and pure experience, don’t you think? In asking this I presume that you are past your acceptable half-life mark – and since people are willing to accept a life span of eighty years, you are past forty. And considering you are willing to surf blogs and check out facebook updates, I would imagine you are not way past fifty. So are you in a mid-life crisis? Come on…. admit it…I will admit to it if you do! What, are you going to prevaricate by getting into definitions? Offo-

But lets not talk midpoints; I was thinking of the first half of our lives, the golden half before the knowledge of our mortality began to inform our every action. That wonderful time when we lived in the moment, the time before we quit that soul-attenuating job, bought that sports car, ditched our insufferable but perfectly decent soul mates for poseurs, let ourselves go, or went for a makeover. Before we started to scramble for meaning in our lives. That is, if we were not simply intent on (and content with) presenting a smashing image to the world. Many of us try to get by with that.

Catcher in the Rye is a novel that refers to that awakening awareness and melancholy that first intrudes into your happy and ignorant life. But you absorbed your angst and grew up, didn’t you? And one day you understood with breathtaking warmth, the identical tribulations of the people around you. In particular you began to appreciate your parents. A tribute to that stage in a person’s life is ‘The Corrections’, Jonathan Franzen’s wildly successful novel of a family of five.

I loved this book. Franzen has a wonderful sense of the family dynamic, and sharp observations to make. More than anything else, I realized that people were the same - in America or India or elsewhere. That realization continues to dog me through Franzen’s latest offering, “Freedom.” Set in contemporary America, this is probably the most vivid and real portrayal of a ‘normal,’ middle-income family with a progressive outlook, going through an impressive mid-life crisis. It is real in how it co-opts every member of this ‘happy’ family in a horrible dance to devastation.

You have to read this book. Whether you are under thirty or no, whether you are in a crisis or no. It is an important book because it captures like no other book, the zeitgeist of here and now - this time being lived now, by people like you and me who can log on to a computer and bother to read about a book.

Like Corrections, Freedom too centers on a family, though it is a family of four instead of five (like so many forty-year olds I too have two siblings and two children), and the central action has shifted to the parents rather than the children.

Enter the Berglunds, who cycle to work and work socially responsible jobs, who renovate dilapidated mansions into stunning homes, who thus gentrify their neighborhood, who buy organic before everyone else and choose to stay at home to bake cupcakes - for their own and other disadvantaged children. They steer clear from petty politics and are concerned with doing the right thing. Mrs. Patty Berglund seems to have achieved the dreams dreamt by a new-age college girl after landing Mr. Right.

The heartbreak usually is that Mr. Right is exactly that - Mr. Right. Not Mr. Dreamboat, not the homme fatale if you please. This is exactly why Elizabeth Bennett prefers Darcy to Wickham and why Lata chose Haresh over Kabir Durrani. While women idealize love, marriage is all about hard-nosed common sense. Weirdly, this troubles my post-modern, feminist, emerging-Asia sensibility. I should cut the c---p and simply say that I am afraid a woman marrying sensibly may not gain much respect. I am afraid that many women think so, so they deliberately set themselves up for a rejection from Mr. Dishybutwrong before they settle down – with Mr. Right! So you have Bridget Jones who is dumped by Daniel Cleaver before she finds love in Mark Darcy’s arms. Or Scarlett who needs to lose Ashley (and the heft of a fat book thrown at her head) before she realizes Rhett is Just Right.

And this is true for Patty too, for she fancies Richard Katz, a musician and a maverick while she loves Walter, her besotted but unfortunately uncool husband. This is the central plot of Freedom and in trying to take the story to its end, Franzen weaves a compelling narrative of sweeping scope, intimate depth and sheer brilliance. We are taken through Patty’s loneliness during her growing up years and her childhood disappointments and traumas, some small, some big and very real, that have all built up into a grievance that has turned into a willful refusal to see things as they are. We see also that Patty essentially regards herself to be in a passionless marriage with a good man (ohhh), that her daughter Jessica has been relegated to dad-clone status (no no), and that she concentrates most of her emotion on her son Joey (oh no!). Her alienation from her past and present families and her cultivated apathy, comes to a head, when the one person she relates with (or thinks she relates with at any rate), Joey, rebels spectacularly. Joey’s revolt comes as a shock and sets off Patty’s crisis. In the case of Walter, who is following his dream of making the world a better place by saving a bird, it is not only Patty who is driving him round the bend. It is also the all too familiar disillusionment that is apt to hit people around the middle of their lives. I refer to the realization that this is it, we have given it our best shot and this is all there is to it. So long and Thanks for all the Fish. 42. (The age at crisis point?) That life has less meaning than what we imagined it to have. In Walter’s case it is the realization that saving the Cerulean warbler (his bird) is inextricably intertwined with uprooting people and allowing global big business to flourish at the cost of the environment. This is a cruel sentence for earnest, idealistic Walter, that is not in any way lessened by the admiration of a pretty Bong woman named Lalitha (yes the ‘h’ troubled me too). Katz is too cool to have a crisis, or maybe he has been in crisis forever.

Franzen looks into the NGO world where fierce idealism, fanaticism and compromise are brothers in arms, he looks at an America that is a hyper-power at war and the attendant immoral manipulation, amoral adventurism and moral dilemma. His genius is evident in how he can draw even apathetic-me into his story. And Walter’s big speech ranks as one of my all-time great book speeches (along with Gussie Fink-Nottle’s inspired performance for the boys of Market Snodsbury Grammar School.)

What the book doesn’t do too well is to make the greedy new generation X (Y?) as interesting as Patty and Walter. Joey’s machinations and his wallowing in crap before he ‘finds’ himself are stylistic rather than hysterically real. And the less said of Joey’s quiet and scary girlfriend, the better. While Connie morphs from avatar to avatar, we are presented with some fairly real character sketches in Jenna and Lalitha. The problem is that they are sketches, caricatures rather, that never explore their truths and their personalities, and does them a serious injustice. I am willing to forgive Franzen Jenna, but not Lalitha, the Bengali girl who spells her name in such a Tamil way and who gives nothing away, except what she chooses to let us know of her. Franzen could not have fallen for the oldest immigrant trick in the world!

Yet. Read the book! It is gripping and you will not regret it.

Like my friends and I. Let me see if there is stuff that came out of our book discussion that I have not touched on in my review-

Sneha did not care for Patty Berglund. What was the fuss around her all about? Our answers- She was good looking, she had been scarred, and nobody actually liked her - except Walter and maybe Katz. But we spoke at the same time - I could have missed something. Thinking about it, I would say because she is the center of her family and Franzen writes of a family.

Sneha also wanted to know why Joey rebelled like he did? I was so focused on giving my theory that I did not hear a word of other answers. My take- he got fed up of being the “designated understander.” He resented his mother confiding her deepest secrets, in him instead of her husband. Patty also appropriated a knowingness of Joey that could be galling to an adolescent. And like a girl’s shouting matches with her dad are supposed to end after she goes out on her first date (psycho-babble of course, no direct experience here), I guess this is a rite of passage that has to be gone through when a boy falls for a girl. Some others felt that Joey’s behavior is inexplicable in an Indian setting. This could well be but I feel Joey’s actions were deliberately constructed to be gross and inexplicable – maybe Franzen feels that way of the newer generation. Anu felt I was letting my ‘mother of a boy’ panic get the better of me.

Dhruv thought Richard Katz was the coolest character in the book and most people agreed except for Pooja and Anu and me who felt that he was as much a prisoner of his image as the others were of their circumstances. Pooja told us Katz was a projection of Franzen. I felt that Patty’s obtuseness grated a bit and could be a metaphor for America- a country that did not seem to have its finger on the pulse of world opinion. Anand felt that things would have not come to this point if Patty had been economically productive. Point.

Pulak could not relate to Patty’s experiences while Preeti, Radhi, TS and many others felt precisely the opposite. There was also a lot of talk of Walter’s Swedish dad and granddad (Franzen’s father is Swedish by the way) but I missed all that because I was trying to explain to Anu that I was not being paranoid, that scary Connie is a force of evil. Ajay was very impressed by some colorful lines in the book and we agreed that Franzen puts some gross but accurate thoughts very well indeed. People also objected to the surfeit of sex in the book (things get racier after Page 140) and no one liked the descriptions of Lalitha and Walter together. (No surprise there!) And everyone felt that Lalitha had been disposed off rather too tidily. I wanted more for Jessica - my favorite character. And I found most of the characters a tad unlikeable.

Yet. Read the book.

Favorite quote, if you may call it-
Joey to Patty: "No, but, like, what do you do all day?"
Patty: "Actually FYI, that can be a somewhat awkward question to ask a person. It's sort of asking a childless couple why they don't have children, or an unmarried person why they aren't married. You have to be careful with certain kinds of questions that may seem perfectly innocuous to you."

Read on.

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