This was an interesting book in that it is difficult to pin down for a rating. I liked reading it and appreciated the writing but upon finishing it I have the same sensation as if I were trying to grab a cloud of smoke.
It is constructed with sharp, clever prose and impressively well-drawn characters. And while Franzen expertly handles the themes of frailty, forgiveness, and judgment, his treatment of the story itself feels almost incidental, an issue for me since I enjoy good story above most else.
In the Lamberts, Franzen gives us a messed up family. Not a monumentally messed up family that screams their dysfunction with a megaphone, but rather a quieter, more buttoned-down variety, one in which despite outward appearances, everyone is a failure and engaged in a relentless internal struggle for their emotional well-being.
Each character is utterly convincing, and fascinating in her or his own way. Some are more frustrating than others — for instance, I actively hated Gary’s wife Caroline and the childish, passive-aggressive ways that she manipulated her weak, terrified husband. Enid was only marginally less offensive to me. Chip, on the other hand, especially in the first chapters, was just one extended cringe. And while he was an undeniable loser and all-around sleazeball, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. Only a good writer can accomplish such a feat.
Franzen’s crisp prose is more evidence of his talent. He comes up with inventive ways of saying familiar things, and has a knack for stringing out a thought into rambling tangents and then reeling it back in with a delicious paragraph clincher. Here’s a description of the Lambert’s basement, for example:
. . . The only dust-free objects in the room were the wicker love seat, a can of Rust-Oleum and some brushes, and a couple of Yuban coffee cans which despite increasingly strong olfactory evidence Enid chose not to believe were filling up with her husband’s urine, because what earthly reason could he have, with a nice little half-bathroom not twenty feet away, for peeing in a Yuban can? 8
And there are nice, rapid-fire personal insights that indicate Franzen has a solid grasp of psychology:
Doug, who was younger and shorter than Chip, so persistently claimed to be in awe of Chip’s intellect and so consistently tested free of any irony or condescension that Chip had finally accepted that Doug really did admire him. This admiration was more grueling than belittlement. 95
Franzen shares with other talented writers this propensity for kineticism in his prose.
I also loved some of the philosophical and spiritual questions that Franzen raises, specifically regarding the nature of reality. There’s a wonderful description of Alfred on pp. 255-56 in which Franzen probes profound regions concerning the nature of the “authentic” versus the “superficial.” There’s a lot of undercurrent regarding the nature of stubborn, arrogant individuals who are certain they have determined the Way and that anyone not on that path is an imbecile. These are the types of insights I adore when reading fiction.
The conversation between Enid and Sylvia on the cruise ship is similarly intriguing, when Sylvia wonders how a thought or realization can feel so real, or whether images aren’t as real as anything else in reality. I don’t necessarily blame Franzen for not mining these depths further, but I would have eagerly accompanied him had he chosen to.
Unfortunately there was a lack of focus that was difficult for me to overcome. Denise felt like the most likely candidate for the role of protagonist, with her intelligence, responsibility and feminine empathy. But she was also the least realized character; Franzen apparently didn’t like her enough to devote an adequate page-count. Likewise, there were perspective shifts within the same chapter that confused me and interrupted my reading rhythm. Take that complaint with a grain of salt, for I am coming to realize just how much of a traditionalist I am when it comes to things like narrative voice.
The end of the book really bothered me too. I think I can say this without needing a “spoiler” label, but in the last few pages Franzen seems to be heavily implying that Alfred is the main problem with the entire family, or at least with Enid. Am I misreading this? Through most of the book I admired Al’s independence and dignity — was I mistaken to do so, or was I deliberately misled? Clarification on this would be appreciated.
Also, sometimes the writing felt overwritten, and the book began to feel like an exercise in chic style over narrative substance. Nowhere was this more distracting than on p. 508 when Denise is throwing out spoiled food in her mom’s basement and Franzen lists item after item of inventively-described culinary paraphernalia. Instead of reading I literally stopped to wonder how long it must have taken Franzen to come up with all of these descriptions, and all for what amounted to a very ornate laundry list. It was impressive, but it also felt ridiculous. But regardless of how the list makes you feel, if I’m stopping to wonder this in the middle of the story, the prose is getting in the way of the novel, which sort of seems like the opposite of what an author should be going for.
So when I think back on this book, I’m left with a screamingly (screaming hysterically?) well-written character study (perhaps the family as a whole is the “protagonist”?) in which intriguing insights are occasionally articulated but not much happens in way of plot. It was enjoyable, occasionally delightful, but now that I know what Franzen’s about I don’t think I’ll be reading him again any time soon.