Ungar and Walter Berglund on the American anti-sublime

So like everybody else, I read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom last week, and like everybody else I loved it. I think I’m going to be limiting my dose of Franzen criticism in the near future, having already made my decision whether to read the book and all, but I did read Sam Anderson’s take on the novel in New York magazine this week. Anderson claims (pretends?) that he would have found Franzen’s crankiness about the environmental and cultural degradation of America tiresome if Franzen weren’t a genius in his creation of plot and character.

This, I confess, was not quite the problem that I had to overcome, but mine was related. My problem, rather, was the irony with which Franzen handles that crankiness. Perhaps to shield the reader from direct contact with his anger, Franzen places it largely in the mind and voice of Walter Berglund, Midwestern do-gooder, who is falling apart. I found myself reading dour judgments about the ecologial and cultural degradation of America that to me sounded justifiable and even spot-on but which were being framed within the novel as symptoms of nervous breakdown and by-products of romantic frustration. Here’s Walter Berglund explaining his distress to an old friend:

I couldn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t stand what was happening to the country. . . . It was like having acid thrown in my face every time I passed the city limits. Not just the industrial farming but the sprawl, the sprawl, the sprawl. Low-density development is the worst. And SUVs everywhere, snowmobiles everywhere, Jet Skis everywhere, ATVs everywhere, two-acre lawns everywhere. The goddamned green monospecific chemical-drenched lawns. . . . This was what was keeping me awake at night. . . This fragmentation. Because it’s the same problem everywhere. It’s like the internet, or cable TV—there’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development.

To which every molecule in my being wanted to say, Amen, self-incriminatingly, but plot twists conspired to remind me that Walter’s thinking had drifted a little south of healthy.

Since I happened to read Freedom in between cantos of Clarel, Herman Melville’s 500-page epic poem about a tour to the Holy Land, I happened to notice that Melville, like Franzen, also took the precaution of voicing his angriest rants through fictional characters recognized by others inside his literary work as not altogether sane. Here’s Ungar, a Civil War veteran, taking a dim view of the English-speaking peoples’ loud religiosity and triumphalist crowing about free trade:

The Anglo-Saxons—lacking grace
To win the love of any race;
Hated by myriads dispossessed
Of rights—the Indians East and West.
These pirates of the sphere! grave looters—
Grave, canting, Mammonite freebooters,
Who in the name of Christ and Trade
(Oh, bucklered forehead of the brass!)
Deflower the world’s last sylvan glade!

My marginal note: “Franzenesque!”