“They resemble any number of well-meaning couples for whom ‘the home’ has become a citadel of aspirational self-regard and family life a sequence of ennobling rites, each act of overparenting wreathed in civic import—the ‘issues’ involving cloth versus disposable diapers, or the political rectitude of the Boy Scouts, or the imperative to recycle batteries—and the long siege of the day heroically capped by ‘Goodnight Moon’ and a self-congratulatory glass of zinfandel.” The reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom have been universally over-the-top, but this quote from Sam Tanenhaus’s piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times Book Review is particularly significant. However much one agrees with Tanenhaus’s praise of the book, Freedom certainly inspired him to make one of the most cogent statements ever written about the parenting style of the baby boom generation. Furthermore, when he was first appointed editor of the Book Review several years back, Tanenhaus, the author of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography and The Death of Conservativism, was rumored to be more interested in non-fiction than fiction, to the consternation of many novelists and short story writers. By assigning himself the review of Freedom, and concluding that the novel “illuminates, through the steady radiance of the author’s moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew,” he is making an argument for the gravitas of fiction at a time when the serious novel has failed to lay claim to its classically oracular role. By writing about Freedom in the way he does—thereby adding Franzen’s book to the list of great American novels, from Herzog and Catch-22 to Portnoy’s Complaint, Rabbit Run, The Natural and, mostly recently, Infinite Jest—Tanenhaus is making a case that there is still a great American novel.
[This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture.]