November 9, 2010
The Great American Novel
I am currently reading "Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen. It has an intentionally American sounding title. Likewise, it reads like the typical American novel, in every positive sense of the term.
It is hard to put my finger on what characterizes an American novel. Perhaps I see it in the tone, or a specific backdrop, a lingo, a pace, a dynamic that transports you to the new continent, even though no explicit mention of the country is made.
What do Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand), Love Story (Eric Segal), East of Eden (John Steinbeck), the World According to Garp (John Irving), Golden Gate (Vikram Seth) and Freedom have in common?
Certainly the size of these volumes. Heavy and hefty , and difficult to carry out of the house. Wouldn't the paper thin Le Monde make for a more appropriate read during my half hour morning coffee break? I thought of the time in my life when I carried "Atlas Shrugged" everywhere, because I actually had the time to read for an hour at a time.
I have reached p. 75 of Freedom and I have become acquainted with numerous characters at various periods of their lives. I have also witnessed them in different settings. I can be sure that the novel will develop further with added characters, various settings and the plot will certainly thicken. That is how Ayn Rand developed Atlas Shrugged. When a book is as enjoyable to read as both these novels are, the reader dreams of the endless story and never wants it to end.
How can "Freedom", set in today's United States, have the same feel as "East of Eden", which was set during
the Gold Rush, or "Love Story" in the 1960s and "Golden Gate" in the 1990s? Their narratives are all similar: characters live their life, develop as they grow up, fall in love, gain ambition, deal with their conundrums.Although seemingly standardized, each of these novels are written in beautiful prose and every tale is different. But how Franzen's main character reminds me of John Irving's quirky Garp! In fact the word quirky can only describe an American protagonist. In most other literatures, the characters are much too serious.
If you cross the Atlantic, to France, and examine contemporary French fiction, such as "Les Yeux Jaunes des Crocodiles" , which I attempted to read this summer, I cannot help but see a difference in style from those great American novels. Why is it that I got hooked to "Freedom" from its first lines, yet struggled with the first chapters of "Les Yeux Jaunes"? Don't I have a linguistic and cultural predisposition to enjoy the French novel? Or is the familiar paradigm of the Great American novel that attracted me more?
I have just begun reading Freedom. I have carried it around town with me, despite its breadth, brandishing it as if I actually did have the freedom of time to read it.