I will try not gush for this one, or spend any credibility I might have on inveiglements. In my own mind, what I want to say sounds cheesy, bombastic; hyperbolic. A terrible collection of blandishments.
But here goes: Jonathan Franzen is the first American novelist whose work reminds me vividly of the breadth and depth of the Russian Greats, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. This is an American Brothers Karamazov; an Anna Karenina of the 21st Century.
O.K. Hyperbole over.
This is a harsh book. It’s realistic. It is a massive stripping of illusions for both you and for the various characters in the book. And while it is definitely a novel written in classic omniscient narrator style, one can’t help but feel its timelines: it rings true, too true on every single page.
This is a story about the Generations. About the typical American nuclear family and its Modern accumulations of drama and first world problems. Each character is both highly typical (bordering on stereotypical), yet ultimately deeply nuanced and emerges by the end of the novel to be gifted with individual value and insight. Each character has her or her own personal tragedy to wrestle with.
Enid and Alfred Lambert are your typical mid-western old couple. Conservative, full of Calvinistic work ethic and shame, they embody a sort of Great Generation where times where only more simple on the surface. Alfred is strict. A yeller. An engineer who values discipline and hard work. Enid is both controlling and manipulative, yet largely lives in a fantasy world; she lives for future Christmases and senior citizen cruises.
There three children, Gary (materialistic, unimaginative and established as a banker and father who suffers from depression and being very much like his father), Chip (intellectual and insecure; a failed academic), and Denise (a professional chef who struggles with her sexuality) are emotional wrecks due to their strict and painful upbringing by Enid and Alfred.
(spoiler alert) Through the course of the book, Alfred decays in Parkinson’s (this is extremely painful and heartrending), Enid escapes her shame and loosens up; Gary comes to terms with his depression, Chip finds his place in the world (and with women), and Denise seems to pass through the emotional eye of the needle with her sexuality. I do not feel like I am giving too much away because the how-why-when of the book is as important as these ultimate conclusions which I have revealed. It is not a predictable book by any means.
I was struck by the depth and breadth of Franzen’s emotional and philosophical understanding of the characters and their situation. Each character is fully realised; full of strengths, weaknesses, dispositions and personal growth. You feel like you know these characters; have met them and spent time with them. I personally painfully identified with one character (I won’t mention who) for example, and it is very rare that I identify with a character in a book.
It is this aspect which reminds me the most of Tolstoy. And it is the philosophical and emotional experimentation with three siblings which puts me in the mind of The Brothers Karamazov.
It’s a book that I wish old people could read so they could (finally) gain some perspective on their parenting style and they way younger people think and feel about them. Younger people will gain insight about how old people think and feel about them. It’s a book which shows us the American reality, not Hollywood fantasy American that we are used too.
This book appeals both to the “head” and to the “heart” in a way that is penetratingly intelligent, as well as complete and satisfying.