Jonathan Franzen and Unfinished Realism
I could be wrong about this. I haven’t finished Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, so I’m open to having my impressions of the book thus far — superbly written but sort of wrong — revised by the rest of the novel. But I started reading the book because part of it addresses mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia, something I have a close personal connection to. Or, rather, I have a close personal connection to the activists in West Virginia who are working to stop it: my mother is the founding director of OVEC, an environmental and social justice group based in Huntington, West Virginia, and I worked and volunteered for them when I was a teenager.
Yesterday, my mother — who is also reading the book — wrote me this in an email:
I’m reading Freedom – note that most of the people at DC rally are “youthful”, not over 60 as Franzen said. Good book- but wrong abt calling the main MTR activist “dull eyed” – I know of NO dull eyed activists, what an oxymoron!
She’s talking about this rally. What strikes me about how Franzen has portrayed environmental activist types in the book is how familiar they are, how closely they fit particular media stereotypes of what activists are supposed like. But the environmental activists I know, in life, do not particularly fit these stereotypes. If some do, it’s because activists come in all types, which is another way of saying no more than this: the “familiar” activist type we know is the fiction of a culture that deeply distrusts activists (when they don’t come with a conservative pedigree, that is), and so, produces a narrative singularity to explain them.
Where this stereotype of activists comes from is not what I want to talk about. What has nagged at me as I read this book is the point where the novel’s realism falters as it attempts to comprehend reality: its reliance not just on the “activist” figure we think we know but on the fiction that there is a singular activist figure we ever could know. Amelia Atlas and Andrew Seal are completely right that “realism” is the key term in comprehending what Franzen is trying to do here, but the flip side of realism as a method is the problem of unintelligibility and noise: you become increasingly bad at registering the more confident you become in your mimetic reach. The more comprehensive you claim to be in rendering reality legible, the more noise you necessarily screen out as you produce that intelligibility.
Maybe this is even what Freedom is, in some very charitable sense, about. I’m not sure yet. I’m particularly drawn to readings of novels and movies as exploring the breakdowns of their own interpretive matrix, and it may be that the novel is, in this way, about the failures of realism. What I do know is that, as a novel, it tells me very little that strikes me as true in the way it describes MTR activists, even as it makes quite ambitious claims to generic realism. Which is the problem: how does a “realist” novel address the fact that it might be wrong? In that vein, in fact, I can’t help but notice all the little fuck-ups I’m coming across; the character who catches shingles from someone with chicken pox, for example, was written by an author who doesn’t know what shingles is (you catch chicken pox from someone with chicken pox; shingles you catch from yourself).
Other examples abound, but they represent not a particular authorial failing so much as a necessary and unavoidable failing in realism, so I don’t want to dwell. And I need to finish the book before I decide what I think about it. But I wanted to register this frustration because this video, it seems to me, encapsulates a lot of this problem:
Can you understand him? And yet you can hear that he owns that audience; in the moment in which Larry Gibson gave this speech, you can tell that he was understood, that his words had deep, deep meaning. Here, you can see video of the moment yesterday when Larry was arrested in front of the White House in front of a crowd chanting his name, one of a hundred people arrested among a crowd of two thousand. And yet when those words and that moment were placed on youtube, something fundamental was strip mined out of them. And when Franzen wrote about MTR activists — an account which will be read by more people than will read about what happened yesterday — I look in vain for the thing I feel like I know.
Is this the point? After all, Walter Berglund is a realist, too, and he is quite far from being the same as Jonathan Franzen. As he tries to find a realistic solution to the problem of ecocide — “The super rich will save us!” — there’s something about the virtuous half-truth of Jonathan’s neo-con father in his belief that he can use MTR as a way to stop MTR. He’s wrong; the most basic fact about MTR is that there is no such thing as reclamation. You can certainly do things that you can then call “reclamation,” but MTR (as distinct from other forms of strip mining) is such a radical and fundamental transformation of the land that what is left afterwards will require centuries or more to return to something that even vaguely resembles habitable earth. You cannot build on it because it will keep settling and shifting for decades, and no matter how much top soil you pile on top of the heavy metals and toxics that used to be safely buried under the mountain, the water table will more or less be permanently poisoned by all the evil shit you’ve just uncovered. That’s why it has to stop. And that’s why the idea that you can do MTR in a sustainable way is such bullshit. But maybe that’s even the point of the novel, the point of convergence between literary realism and political: the temptation that you can render reality legible without fundamentally destroying what it used to be.
Update, 10/02: My mother sent me what she called “a coalfield woman’s critique of AP coverage of the 115 people arrested in front of white house,” in which the writer of the letter protested:
“Mainly what I was trying to express is that the mainstream media looked at a really ground-breaking protest and then just unthinkingly fit it into a typical mold, the mold that the mainstream media uses to describe pretty much every mass protest: something along the lines of “a bunch of hippie kids with nothing better to do started dancing around in the spring sunshine.” Not only was that inaccurate in this case, but it also missed the fact that this protest was attended by a much larger proportion of working class people than the typical large national protest, which I think was one of the best things about Appalachia Rising.