Sunday, November 20, 2011
Novels often turn out to be better guides to the soul of a place than even the best official guide books. A first-rate fiction writer can grasp the essence of a country, a city, an era in a more creative way than most travelogues.
I realised this once again during a recent short trip to the USA when I was fortunate enough to have Jonathan Franzen's Freedom as my fictional guide.
I'd been meaning to read Freedom ever since it was published last year. Like millions of readers worldwide I'd been enchanted by Franzen's The Corrections; I'd also read his earlier novel The Twenty-Seventh City (not quite as enchanting; the author was obviously still getting into his stride) and his thought-provoking nonfiction work How to Be Alone. But there were so many other books-to-be-read on my bedside table that I kept postponing the pleasure.
Then I found myself on the east coast of the USA with a suitcase full of unsuitable books. Yes, I'm still old-fashioned enough to carry actual books instead of an electronic reading device when I travel. The extra weight isn't really a problem. I leave the books with friends along the way once I've read them - which usually leaves me with enough space in my suitcase to buy more books. This time, though, I'd packed in a hurry, and the books were all wrong, nothing even vaguely American.
Just the excuse I needed to walk into a New York airport bookshop, where I saw Freedom on a shelf waiting for me as if we had an appointment. An hour later I was reading it with the kind of slow-burning excitement that increases with each page. I'm sure I would have enjoyed the novel even if I'd never been to the USA, but reading it while I was over there was a real treat.
Freedom is a huge sprawling family story set over a few decades and in many different cities (which I couldn't all visit, obviously), but a substantial part of the narrative action happens in the two cities where I spent most of my time: New York and Washington DC. I also visited friends in Mclean, Virginia, just across the river from DC, where the young Joey Berglund sees 'a sylvan cul-de-sac that was like a vision of where (he) wanted to live as soon as he got rich'. Previously I'd never even heard of Mclean, but now I could understand exactly what Joey meant with that 'sylvan cul-de-sac'. There is even a short scene between Joey and Jenna in a Florida airport, which I read just after I'd flown to Florida. Talk about the right book at the right time. This one was perfect.
I don't mean that it's a perfect book - such ambitious novels seldom are. There are a few pages full of rather boring background information on Walter Berglund's complicated career moves which I would have gladly skipped. But the novel has nearly 600 pages, most of them gripping, satirical and serious, extremely well-written with totally convincing characters.
Walter Berglund's wife, the sporty and pretty Patty, is so vividly drawn that I was still thinking of her days after I'd finished the book. Their egotistical son, Joey, started out as the character I would have loved to hate and ended up learning to like somewhat reluctantly. And their eternally cool, eternally selfish rock-and-roll friend, Richard Katz, well, let's just say it's easy to understand why Patty found him so irresistible.
Freedom is a big novel about big ideas - politics and ecology, the state of the planet and overpopulation, capitalism and corruption, friendship and faithfulness - but the ideas are never abstract, always carried forward in a very concrete way by the characters. And there are moments of heart-stoppingly pure and beautiful writing. Let me leave you with one of my favourite paragraphs:
She went to the bathroom and sat on the closed toilet lid, her heart racing, until she heard Richard go outside and begin handling lumber. There's a hazardous sadness to the first sounds of someone else's work in the morning; it's as if stillness experiences pain in being broken. The first minute of a workday reminds you of all the other minutes that a day consist of, and it's never a good thing to think of minutes as individuals. Only after other minutes have joined the naked, lonely first minute does the day become safely integrated in its dayness. Patty waited for this to happen before she left the bathroom.
Bon voyage, if you're travelling soon. Here's hoping you find the perfect fictional guide.