He came, conquered, then pissed right off again, the derision of a million unforgiving housewives ringing across his apologetic face. Is it any wonder that he returned bearing them a present? Is it any surprise the character that exercised him the last block of years?
Franzen will never escape the legacy of Oprah and the Corrections, and it's well he shouldn't: he's a novelist most concerned with what's right now, more than what should or could be, and he seems content for the first time, finally in concert with the audience he most assuredly will satisfy: this is a book for those who want to read and will pay for the privilege to do so, as long as they're getting to read about themselves. If the disdain he's suffered from some younger writers carries a whiff of truth to it--and in drips, it does, calling an Uncle Tupelo analog "Walnut Surprise" denotes Franzen as somebody who doesn't pay that much attention to Pitchfork--it's besides the point: Freedom, like Corrections, isn't a book for the precocious youth still enamored with style and speed, but that more dissident audience, one seeking the comforting pleasure of Strunk & White-ian craft. An old book, for the middle age, about their right now. (For those who question what seems a weird emphasis on "the population explosion", it's worth knowing that was a talking-point fear on par with Barack Obama, terrorism and "snark" back when the primary audience for Freedom: A Novel were as old as I imagine most of the one-minute glancers that this particular blog attracts to be.) The fear of children fucking too soon, an educated contempt for contemporary music, hysterically funny jeremiads against iPods and blogs, Freedom is interested in grown-ups in an ultimately democratic fashion: you don't have to agree on anything, you just have to survived past a certain date.
It's met with some ambivalence around these parts, some of these goals. Not because it collapses into a Gray's Anatomy/Desperate Housewives fetishization of middle-aged sexual affairs when it comes time for those kinds of twists, not because its dedication to old fashioned Writing Good Sentences ignores the compulsive pleasures of more ambitious experimentation, but merely because it's so sturdily placed in a genre that's been under attack for so long that the assumption that there's something wrong with it has been internalized like bone marrow: this is Literary Fiction, it's Great American, and so it must be dead, wrong, and shit. Immersive as he can be, Franzen--a proud member of the "don't write on an Internet-accessible computer" writing crew--seems to recognize the abandonment of solitary focus that book-reading is so popularly described as having lost. His elder characters stay on track as much as they can, and his most jittery young man is paired with a heavily fictionalized portrayal of autistic manic depression to keep the tides of lost attention at bay, but the wolf of multi-tasking is forever at the door. It's not an accident that Franzen's largest characters in the book are either married to all-consuming actions, like sports or the immobile silence of birdwatching, any more than it is when he glosses over the actual creativity of his one artist character. Purposefully, heroically, Freedom isn't the tombstone of the Great American Novel, but it is one of the few larger pieces of fiction that will be able to ignore the compulsive speed with which these generations live now while still grasping towards that classification. Hiding it as he does, the tang of bitterness multiplies by the end, leaving one desperately fending off the most 2010 of reactions: that's it?
The brilliant second in Peace's to-be-finished trilogy of crime in post-World War Two Japan sees the author upping and refining the style of Tokyo Year Zero--this is half-book, half-epic poem, and the real crime that serves as centerpiece this time burns even hotter. Whereas Year Zero was a heavily stylized rendition of crime fictions most reliable device--the pursuit of a serial killer--Occupied City uses the Sadamichi Hirasawa case as its spawning core. (Googling that is to know horror: be warned.)
Crediting Peace as a writer who "pulls no punches" seems cliched, yet its difficult to ignore the aptness of the phrase--here in Occupied City, one finds a writer going much farther afield than his contemporaries (a small number, that) in terms of ambition, violently rejecting any of the standard crime novel conventions, choosing instead to layer out tightly bound chapters in a myriad of styles. Here, one finds entire sections written in unpunctuated mental waste, the product of an unknown detective's scratchpad as he spirals into mania, while the multiple victims gather for choral outpourings of black mass rage, sputtering alongside the living throughout the book, always beginning with chants of "Beneath The Black Gate". Throughout the book, Peace returns to set writing patterns, copying and pasting entire paragraphs to give the relevant passage a sense of oppressive repitition, only to cut the tape so that he can splice multiple narratives in one long string of sentences, using capitalization and italics to code the work--the ghosts jabber about everything at once, it is only our narrator who is willing to provide a crutch.
Like most of Peace's output so far, the book is a grotesque hunchback of cynical contempt, refusing at every introduction to produce characters who can escape the diseased violence that infects them. While only overtly political in a few brief passages circling the various humiliations that a few American soldiers unleash upon the Japanese citizens, there's no escaping the observational tone--the rage squirts out, spattering like the guts of roaches, their carcasses smashed by wet, sticky hands. Judgments are few and far between, and so the result: it's why the word ambition should go so rarely used.
Pretty much the go-go positive side of the coin that is popularized by the library of collapse on the flip, The Pixar Touch shares a lot of the qualities (stylistic and structural) that books by the Michael Lewis types produce. Here, one reads about the decades in the wilderness spent by Pixar's braintrust, years where they hid their ultimate ambition--to make movies--while struggling to keep the money flowing. While there's a consistent sense that portions of the story are being left unsaid, as it's difficult to believe that so much money could pump in one direction without more animosity, it's not hard to grasp why. It's a book about success, about winning one's goals with very little (beyond time) sacrificed, the story of dreams, eventually fulfilled.
-Tucker Stone, 2010