Jonathan Franzen, Freedom, Farrar, Strauss, and Girouz, 2010

Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet, Knopf, 2012

[Review Guidelines]

In reading Ben Marcus' The Flame Alphabet, I was never once struck by a comparison to Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, nor a need to compare to the two. It was only well after finishing it, and while on an early morning flight, thinking about what made TFA so incredibly good and rich on its own merits that I started seeking a foil as a compare/contrast, to highlight what I thought it did well, and articulate it. Naturally, the comparison is somewhat apt or appropriate, given Franzen's public denigration of experimental, "difficult" literature, and Ben Marcus' impassioned rebuttal.
     But, in brief, what makes TFA such a better book, or a better piece of literature perhaps I should say, is the way it approaches its core emotional subject. The desire to affect the reader emotionally, to get inside the reader and make the reader feel this experience is, in a sense, his/her own, is shared by both works. I think the similarities and the distinctions highlight a) something about readers and reading and the expectations brought to these works, and, more interestingly, b) something about the approaches literature takes and, therewith, an argument in favor of a postmodern or a post-pomo approach in particular.
     Basically, the thesis I'm dancing around here is that I thought a bit about the Marcus approach and how that book was imaginative and powerful and fun and arresting and novel and, at moments, deeply emotionally affecting, and this led me to think about a subject I've thought about many times previous, viz. using a sort of derangement of all the [reader's] senses to effect a sort of truth. This is what TFA does. It creates a world that is plagued by language itself, where first children and then everyone who utters a word or a sound causes the hearer real and physical trauma. Within this world, the plot of escape and the mysteries underlying the words and the sickness and the organizations responding to these is gripping and intense and about as entertaining as any page-turner you're likely to find, I'd suggest. But the novel's truth isn't in allegory or metaphor or the way in which we recognize something of ourselves in the "forest Jews" and their listeners and the depersonalized sex lives, etc. (These things might contain truths, but I want to argue a different truth.) The truth TFA achieves comes through the accomplishment of real human emotion and the arresting, unexpected, and novel context in which this comes is what makes it feel true. We are lured into a story that feels foreign and new, and so when the character, Samuel, suffers at the loss of his daughter, the estrangement from his wife, the unknowns surrounding him, or the recognition of his own monstrousness, we feel it, and I don't mean in that sense that we are supposed to feel something when set up for it: I mean we truly, deeply feel it. Milan Kundera talks about the etymology of compassion, the idea that it is a "feeling with," a true feeling of the other's otherness, etc. It is, like real pain or real emotion, powerful and unexpected. To borrow from Hume, it has force and vivacity. That's what the context achieves. That's not the only thing it achieves, which is a kind of reductive reading otherwise. But it manages to bring the reader a real and true emotional experience, kind of through a reductio ad absurdum approach. The world is deranged into something we don't know to recognize and then the experience within that world is one that we do, indeed, recognize.
     Now, then, the Franzen approach in Freedom is, as I'm calling it, the tautological approach. The novel, he figures, will strike readers as true because it is intended to strike readers as true—it is precisely because they have seen this before that they are likely to recognize it. It is in certain regards meant to be specular. You look at the lives of this suburban family and you see pieces of your own suburban experience; Patty Berglund—or Walter—would likely buy Freedom on the New Fiction table at Barnes and Noble. I think that is not the end but the means: Franzen is writing what he intends as a realism modeled after circa 19th century realism, where the exacting details of class and milieu and cetera brought the novels to life in vivid, technicolor verisimilitude. So, thus, we are doubly primed to "get" Freedom: first, because it, like those earlier works, shows us a world we've already seen and characters like those we've already known and thus by familiarity and predisposition, we recognize this, are comfortable acceding its truth; second, because we've all read those other novels, had to in some cases in high school or college, and thus are predisposed also for exactly this reading experience: this is what novels do, because this is what other novels we've read have done.
     The reason for noting Franzen's approach as tautological is, nerdily, that I wanted to briefly stretch for a comparison to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason: in shortest sum, Kant is seeking to prove the existence of the synthetic a priori, so something that is true regardless of our experiencing it but which also adds new knowledge. This, I would argue, is the Marcus approach. When we are affected emotionally in TFA, we feel this not as unconventional, experimental, etc., but we feel it as a truth, something that is real beyond just our experiencing it, or beyond our reading about it in a book. It has transcended the page, the character, the scene, the words. But, by virtue of it coming from an unexpected place—feeling the tragic pain of the character's intended secret message of love possibly killing his wife, feeling the loss and the desire to find his daughter again, her loneliness and isolation and bitterness, etc.—this feels new. It feels, as it should, novel. Now, in this nerdy comparison, the Franzen approach is striving for an analytic a priori, so a truth still true regardless of our experiencing it, but in a "non-ampliative" way, more or less a definitional truth. We don't gain anything other, or new. Kant also argues that there can only be these undoubtable analytical truths because they are features of our own experience: in other words, they are true because they are statements about how we understand things as true.
      Franzen has many times described his belief that good fiction should make the reader less alone. This is what I think Freedom is, to a degree, attempting. Along with other things—as I noted above, only reading for the emotional parts and omitting a consideration of Marcus' work with language, and his combination of an array of genres, etc.—this is also what TFA is attempting, and I would say—precisely because it defamiliarizes the world for us—more successfully achieves. [MS]