The difficulty of being Jonathan Franzen.

Jonathan Franzen
Fourth Estate, 570pp, £20

When Jonathan Franzen decided to call his 2006 memoir The Discomfort Zone, it was a case of wordplay trumping truth, for "discomfort" is inadequate to convey the feeling he most associates with being a man or a son; and his fiction everywhere confesses this. "At a certain point," we read in Franzen's third novel, The Corrections, "Enid's capacity for fantasy was physically painful to Gary." Things aren't much better with his father: "It shouldn't have hurt that Alfred, who was wrong about almost everything, did not respect things in Gary's life; and yet it did hurt." One potential consequence of this pain is rebellion; another is full retreat. As Gary's younger brother, Chip, writes to their younger sister, Denise: "Parents have an overwhelming Darwinian hard-wired genetic stake in their children's welfare. But children, it seems to me, have no corresponding debt to their parents."

Franzen's fourth novel, Freedom, is warmer and more conventional than its predecessor, but again it places us among parents and children. If The Corrections is, in Franzen's words, "a comedy about a family in crisis", then the new novel is a tragedy on the same subject, one that shares the comedy's emphasis on the child's desire to turn away.

Patty and Walter Berglund, the novel's central couple, encounter great difficulties with their teenage son, Joey, who leaves the family home in Ramsey Hill, a suburb of St Paul, Minnesota, though he only moves as far as the house next door, where his girlfriend Connie lives with her mother and her mother's hick boyfriend. Later, when he enrols at the University of Virginia, Joey meets Jonathan, the son of a wealthy neocon. Joey, the son of a well-intentioned liberal, had previously assumed that "only his parents could truly mortify a person", but Jonathan suffers in the same way, and the sense of shared fate prompts this cold-hearted boy to something like compassion: "Although Joey was annoyed by his sulking he did keenly understand the pain of being a son."

There is also the pain of being a daughter, wife and mother. After introducing the reader to Patty Berglund through the neighbours' spiteful conjecture on Ramsey Hill, we are presented with her memoir, "Mistakes Were Made", which supplies biographical background and psychological explanation, as well as advancing the narrative. Patty was born to liberal easterners more interested in politics than parenthood. By the time she and Walter became the "young pioneers of Ramsey Hill", she had already suffered two hefty blows. As a schoolgirl, she was raped by a boy whose father (in her own father's chilling words) "does a lot of good in the county". Then, as a college student, she slipped on ice, ending her promising basketball career.

The second misfortune brought her closer to Walter, a diligent student and do-gooder who made an overgenerous estimate of Patty's goodness, though one in which she was initially happy to collude. When, years into a marriage of lost illusions and failed compromises, Patty starts to feel alone, she turns for sympathetic comfort and sexual solace to Walter's best friend, Richard, who, despite his debts to Walter, is willing to provide it.

Patty is not the only character extended the courtesy of generous portrayal. We may think that "Mistakes Were Made" tells us everything worth knowing about strait-laced Walter and callous Richard, but the novel's next - and longest - section, "2004", puts us in more in­timate contact with both of them, revealing Walter's passion and Richard's guilt.

These relationships are tracked over 25 years, from punk to "shock and awe", by which point Richard is enjoying belated musical success with his band Walnut Surprise and Patty is in alcoholic meltdown. Meanwhile, Walter, a lifelong birdwatcher, is at work on a shadily funded project to save the cerulean warbler. Assisting him is Lalitha, glamorous and 27 years old, a campaigner against overpopulation who ought to have been smothered at birth.

The collapse of the Berglunds' marriage is set against an elaborate cultural and historical backdrop. But, for the most part, the book's sociological concerns do not crowd out its central question, "How to live?", just as the book's stateliness does not spoil Franzen's appetite for the emotionally scuzzy. This is a generational saga in which frustration deepens like a coastal shelf, and a family anti-romance in which being "like an older sister" to someone means being much kinder and warmer than an older sister. At one point, Patty recalls watching the "famous scene" in D A Pennebaker's 1967 film Don't Look Back in which Bob Dylan "outshone and humiliated the singer Donovan . . . purely for the pleasure of being an asshole". The novel is full of such behaviour. It is often motivated by the pleasure of being an asshole, though never - and here is one difference between vérité and fiction - "purely" so.

Jonathan Franzen does not possess, or anyway does not exhibit, the subtle "cluster of gifts" - implying, dramatising - that Henry James celebrated in "The Art of Fiction". What he does possess is an ability to place the reader right in the thick of his characters' lives, so that their pain becomes ours. He baldly states their problems and greedily ransacks their thoughts, and although he prefers rumination and paraphrase to the dramatic scene, his discoveries about a character's intentions or ideals are repeatedly tested in the sphere of action against their conduct. He has a gift for generating details and scenarios that bring out latent conflicts. Franzen's method is trenchant and energetic without being brutish or crude; and he shows tremendous skill in his arrangement of material and distribution of detail.

But, as Joey says about "freedom", Freedom is "a pain in the ass sometimes". One source of the pain is Franzen's insistence on exploring his title-word as if it were a contradictory concept, rather than a noun with different uses. In general he is too easily seduced by the cliché-busting paradox, apparently failing to see that readers may already have encountered the observation he is offering - indeed, may find it as familiar as a cliché.

The whole novel is constructed around the idea that, in trying to avoid our parents' errors, we may overcompensate and commit different mistakes. Franzen combines this with the notion that trying to avoid our parents' errors is futile anyway because family operates a kind of behavioural heredity - Walter has his grandfather Einar's anger about "stupidity"; Richard's depression is passed down from his "Jewish paternal forebears" and "the old Angles and Saxons on his mother's side". Oddly, the repetition of errors is shown to extend beyond family, with characters tending towards the behaviour of other characters whom they hardly know or have never met. This has the effect of making the novel both conveniently shapely and, at times, wildly improbable, suggesting only two or three potential ways of being human in America.

Besides tying his characters too closely together, Franzen ties them too closely to their historical moment, a habit previously informed by Don DeLillo's work but intended here to evoke Tolstoy. Joey is annoyed when the 11 September 2001 attacks occur during his first term at university; he fears that history will interrupt his fun. Franzen is a writer who knows things - about urban planning and the housing market, about semiotics and seismology - but in associating Walter with corrupt allies of George W Bush and involving Joey (still a college student) in private contracting, he takes things too far. Add the details surrounding Richard's music career, and the reader is liable to feel drenched in what Franzen calls "blogospheric leakage". Indeed, he would do well to learn from Richard, who starts off reading Thomas Pynchon before switching to Thomas Bernhard and whose "non-Apple MP3 player" carries a track of "pink noise", a low-frequency variant of white noise "capable of neutralising every ambient sound the world could throw at him".

Since the publication of The Corrections, Franzen has become one of the central figures in American literary culture, a position that affords certain privileges. He collected, in How to Be Alone, his magazine essays about finding a balance between solipsism and distraction, as Saul Bellow did in It All Adds Up. He published a six-chapter memoir (The Discomfort Zone) based largely on personal essays first printed in the New Yorker, as John Updike did with Self-Consciousness. In the run-up to the publication of this new book, Franzen has appeared on the front cover of Time - a sure sign of established prominence, especially if we accept his claim that the magazine, having once aspired to shape American taste, "now serves mainly to reflect it".

Those words appeared in an essay Franzen wrote in 1996, originally headlined "Perchance to Dream", abridged for How to Be Alone and retitled "Why Bother?", but generally referred to as "the Harper's essay". This was his account of how he overcame his "despair about the American novel", specifically "despair about the possibility of connecting the personal and the social". The essay was the latest instance of the American novelist's head-scratching about how to accommodate the competing demands of reality, form and readership (earlier attempts include Philip Roth's "Writing American Fiction", first published in 1960, and Tom Wolfe's "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast" of 1989). Franzen charts the gradual process of accepting the limitations of his enterprise, and he has since written two novels that display the opposite of despair about the possibility of linking "private experience" to "public context".

The debate has moved on since then, however, and Freedom is published at a time when the social novel faces opponents altogether sillier and noisier than Franzen's anxiety. There is David Shields, who disparages The Corrections in his polemic Reality Hunger despite limited acquaintance ("I couldn't read that book if my life depended on it"). Although I understand Shields's exhaustion with what E M Forster called the "conventionalities of fiction-form", I don't think he has chosen the right example. The Corrections may not be Finnegans Wake, but that doesn't make it Ian McEwan's Saturday.

Franzen probably thought that arguments about the novel's inferiority to the memoir and the essay belonged to an age gone by. Still, he did pre-empt the debate to an extent. In an essay on William Gaddis, he identified two related syndromes: "The Fallacy of the Stupid Reader", in which "difficult" art serves "to ‘upset' or 'compel' or 'challenge' or 'subvert' or 'scar' the unsuspecting reader"; and "The Fallacy of Art Historicism" - "a pedagogical convenience" that applies the art world's demand for innovation to the novel. Gabriel Josipovici has recently emerged as a persuasive exponent of this position, but he exaggerates both the degree of stasis and its potential danger - he treats everything non-experimental as anti-experimental.

Fortunately, there is no need to choose. Our reading habits do not constitute a lifelong allegiance to this or that philosophy; enjoying "well-written narratives" (Josipovici) or even "big, blockbuster novels" (Shields) does not signify approval of their position in our culture. And for those who are still able, or even eager, to read works of fiction that succeed in communicating by broadly familiar means a powerful sense of what Franzen called, without blushing, "the difficulty of life", this compulsive novel is not to be ignored.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

Almeida Theatre
Show Hide image

Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.