Freedom’s Limits: Jonathan Franzen, the Realist Novel, and the Problem of Growth
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Freedom’s Limits:
Jonathan Franzen, the Realist Novel, and the Problem of Growth

1. Introduction

If you took it from the reviewers, there was something weirdly interruptive about the eco-politics of Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel Freedom. Sam Anderson began a New York Magazine review by calling Freedom “a work of total genius,” but he emphasized this one qualification: “Franzen the crank,” Anderson wrote, kept stepping in to “overpower Franzen the artist,” forcing the reader to sit through “speeches” in order to get to the “art.” The New Republic’s Ruth Franklin agreed that the stretches of Freedom where the character Walter Berglund takes up “population control as his pet cause” were “the most plodding and gratuitous in the novel.” For B. R. Meyers in the Atlantic, Walter was “constantly holding forth on issues he has researched, but not dramatically experienced”: “They are entertaining tirades, but this is not what fiction is for.”1 Such politics, these reviewers implied, taxed the reader, detracted from character, and disrupted the plot.

Of course one doesn’t just take it from the reviewers. Still, somewhere in this critical mass of complaints is an interesting collective observation, which is that there exists a certain formal incongruity between the parts of Freedom that touch upon overpopulation and the parts that touch upon other totalizing political problems, from sexual violence to the nightmare of imperial war. Freedom reaches these other problems by emplotting them, by having its characters encounter them as experiences or dilemmas, just as The Corrections (2001) has its characters negotiate globalization and the [End Page 295] neuropsychiatric economy. Unsustainable population growth, in contrast, arrives in Freedom not as part of the story but via passages of monologue or dialogue or thought, each characterized by a kind of discursive excess or overflow.

One way to make sense of this incongruity is to give it narrato- logical description. Gerard Genette would have us categorize dialogue and speeches, especially those containing explicitly ideological content, as elements of “narrative” rather than of “story” (257–59); this distinction allows us to observe that Freedom’s overpopulation-content and its other political content live in two different diegetic registers. Genette’s distinction is disputable (Seymour Chatman [Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (1978)] has argued that, on the contrary, what characters say is indeed story rather than discourse), but it seems clear enough that the content of speeches and dialogue does have a different ontological status than do the main events of a story, and accordingly, in this essay I’ll refer to such speeches and dialogue as discourse or didactic discourse rather than story or plot.2 Walter Berglund’s speeches are sometimes events in and of themselves, but more often they’re simply discursive disruptions. When he laments that there are “too many damn people on the planet” (219), that population growth rates are producing “global carbon emissions, and genocide and famine in Africa, and the radicalized dead-end underclass in the Arab world, and overfishing of the oceans, illegal Israeli settlements, the Han Chinese overrunning Tibet, a hundred million poor people in nuclear Pakistan” (220), Walter is simply adding to a litany of such litanies, each interrupting the story as well as continuing it.

Should we make something more, though, of this incongruity between Freedom’s formal approach to unsustainable population growth and its formal approach to other political dilemmas? I want to suggest that we should, and indeed that the novel itself asks us to do so. I argue that Freedom treats unsustainable growth discursively rather than through story because it is preoccupied with the possibility that an antigrowth politics might be incompatible with the affective engines that drive narrative fiction in general and with the formal mechanisms available to literary realism in particular. To make this case, I supplement the language of narratology with the logic of Lukâcsian realism, finding that Franzen struggles both with that cardinal Lukâcsian rule No didacticism and with the complementary imperative that the realist writer reveal totalizing systems and problems through individual characters who experience those systems and problems in the historical present. Along the way, I make forays...