I finished Freedom this morning, and although I have a lot to say, I think I need some time to process.
Meanwhile, I've noticed some amusing similarities in some of the Tournament books. Is this meaningful? No, probably not. But if novelists have some sort of cosmic glimpse into our future, then here's where we're going.
Cats=Bad (which is ridiculous-- Look at that adorable kitten)
In both Bad Marie and Freedom, cats are symbolic of our self destructive tendencies. In Bad Marie, it's just disturbing. An elderly woman died and her cat has been forgotten and locked inside her apartment in Paris. Marie and her lover find the cat before it dies, but it is absolutely awful. The poor cat has lost all of his teeth after trying to open the cat food cans with them. It's terrible. I literally don't think you'd be able to read this book. Things don't go well for that cat after it's rescued, either. Bad Marie is bad, after all.
In Freedom, the main character, Walter, hates cats for killing songbirds. One cat, Bobby, is nothing more than a destructive bird murderer. This cat kills indiscriminately without even returning the kills to his owners. Eventually, Walter traps, captures, and takes Bobby to a shelter several hours away. What does this all mean? I have no idea. But in this year's books, cats are the enemy. Perhaps a thinly veiled metaphor for the destructive hopelessness of humans?
Texting Rules the World
In some of the novels, there's a future where texting replaces speech. In A Visit From the Goon Squad, the last chapter takes place in a not-so distant future where texts are called Ts. In one poignant moment, 2 people having a difficult conversation at a coffee shop find it easier to T each other, even though they are both right there.
In Super Sad True Love Story, the author even goes so far as to rename talking with the clever name "verbal", as in "verbal me later." Once, watching children play, he thinks about how nice it is to see them talking to each other before they learn texting. There's a related problem in this novel, which is that texting has replaced reading. Lenny is the only person who still reads books, other characters, although they can scan or skim text, can't really READ at the level of novels. The concept of "verbaling" doesn't seem to be well thought out because characters talk to each other pretty normally throughout the novel.
Obviously, this metaphor isn't too hard to understand. What does it mean when we lose our ability to interact with each other as humans? It makes sense for novelists to fear what is happening to the written word. This is an interesting warning sign; I know I've felt the urge to just text or email rather than have a human conversation. Sometimes it's just easier. However, the message from SSTLS is even more sinister, that in a world where images are primary, the thoughtfulness and meaning of the written word might also be lost. This was definitely food for thought.
There's Nothing Hotter than a Beautiful, Young Asian Chick
Seriously, in 3 of the books, an older, middle-aged white man falls for a beautiful young Asian girl. Lenny, in SSTLS, falls for the young, nubile, and Korean, Eunice Park. In Freedom, Walter has a love affair with a beautiful and idealistic young Indian woman named Lalitha. In Next, the main character, Kevin, stalks and follows the young woman sitting next to him on the plane. She was reading The Joy Luck Club, so he refers to her as Joy Luck (although it turns out her name is Kelly!). It is revealed that a friend recommended the book to her, and that she didn't like it. Get it: she's too young and hip for a novel as pedestrian as The Joy Luck Club! But it's still just bizarre. What's the point of this revelation? Perhaps that she's hot and Asian, but thinks and acts like a typical American? Well, if that's the case, both Eunice and Lalitha have also turned their backs on their heritage and resent the cultural demands of their parents. What is one to make of this? Coincidence, or an unpleasant look into the middle-aged male mind? Perhaps the message is more simple: you don't have to be an American to be shallow (Eunice), stubborn (Lalitha), or sexy (Kelly/Joy Luck).
My Writing is Awesome!
There were moments in 2 books where where the author essentially compliments himself on his own writing or novel craft. Talk about meta taken to extremes.
The first is a little less egregious, but still elicited a literal eye roll from me. In Model Home, Lyle, the 16 year old daughter says to her brother, "I want my life to be as interesting as it is in books. That's my problem" (267). Perhaps people think that way in real life, but is it really okay for characters in books to wish their lives were as exciting as characters in books? Perhaps this is some sort of Shakespearean urge to, like Macbeth, point out that all the world's a stage. The problem is that it felt an awful lot like the author trying to remind everyone of what an exciting book he'd written. And still his own characters didn't appreciate him!
However, the worst example of this was in Freedom. The novel tells the story of Walter and Patty Berglund. The first chapter or so is sort of a general, 3rd person introduction to the couple. The next 200 pages are ostensibly written as Patty's autobiography. However, this narrative voice is so unmistakably Franzen's that I wonder why he bothered. The entire time she writes about herself in 3rd person, with only the occasional reference to herself as "the autobiographer." As a conceit, this is paper fucking thin. Later on, the autobiography becomes a plot device when she lets others read it, but I really see no reason why there's this pretense that these hundreds of pages of the novel were her autobiography. But here's the best part, when her ex-lover read it, he observes "her writing skills were impressive" (377). Frazen, at this point, I'm about 2/3 through your novel. Clearly, I'm with you. Do you really need to remind me that you're a good writer?
I enjoyed both of these books immensely, but this was a real false note that lifted me right back into reality and jolted me out of the narrative. I'm not sure why it bothered me so much, but it did.
PS Here are my predictions for the Quarterfinals: Freedom beats Room, Goon Squad beats Finkler, Next beats Nox, Model Home beats Lemon Cake.