About 150 pages into Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, one thing about the evolution of his writing style has become clear. Where his first two novels were large-canvass thrillers – tapestries of a dozen or so characters at a given time, surrounding a given social issue – his next two are each about one specific family, and the way that the full breadth of their pasts illuminates themes latent in the short term present.
It’s a curious way to construct a story, it’s decidedly literary, since it wouldn’t work even half as well in Television or film – anytime multiple actors play the same role, you risk doing the math wrong when trying to add up multiple individual performances to equal one complete character (though exceptions certainly exist, sure I get that). This technique works brilliantly in The Corrections, which re-reading made me see the book more clearly and enjoy more completely but also have to admit that my 19-year old self’s initial reaction that it was the best book ever written was a bit naive. So far, Freedom‘s math is mostly accurate, although I’ll wait to judge for sure until Franzen shows his work a bit.
Anyway, there are two friends, Walter and Richard, and we’ve seen them so far age from early-20s into mid-40s, and it struck me how much weight the relationship carries. These aren’t friends who see each other all the time or even talk all the time, but when they interact, the scenes feel fuller and bigger because of the range of the relationship.
This isn’t anything ground-breaking or really that new; that our earliest relationships tend to be the ones we return to, even if the people aren’t anything like they were. There is comfort in the known, there is ease in sinking into a history, in having a conversation that’s been happening for years.
It’s strange. I live near my friend Tyler, who I’ve known for 11 years now, and who, it’s become evident, will be someone I see often all my life. There are other people I’ve come to know who I get that sense with, too. Like, “We’ll be seeing each other for a while, won’t we?” These are the people, I find, I am most willing to argue with, which is a strange form of almost anti-affection, but it also shows someone that you trust them to be willing to disagree with them sometimes and still want to be friends, because there’s so much more that you do agree about.
Then there are those people who you’re friends with but you know it’s temporary. You can just see the writing on the wall, especially in a city like this: these people have other places to go and things to do. A lot of things are temporal here, and that doesn’t necessarily make them void of meaning. It’s just at some point their lives will take them away and that will be okay. It will be a loss that you’ve been expecting. Contact will minimize, you’ll lose touch, and both of you will notice it, but what’s to be done, that’s life?
But introductions are powerful. I haven’t seen my high school friend, Royce since January of 2009. I haven’t talked to him in over a year, since just after he became a father. And okay, I feel a bit guilty about that, because chances are he’s busier than I am, so I could’ve made an effort. But there is an implied scope to the friendship, though. This is two years out of a lifetime. I’ve got decades to see him. Catching up with him and his wife could be accomplished over a long weekend. With friends like these, where enough history is involved, the relationship sortof sustains itself in separation. Because we’ve been friends for a long time, already.
I think that’s one of the reasons the new film by David Fincher, “The Social Network,” is so effective. The drama of betrayal and acceptance and status feels stronger when we’re in our late teens/early 20s, because the relationships and events are formative. Change is possible at any stage of life, but it gets more difficult.
Think of the ways that pain stays with us from childhood or adolescence. Most of us still hate someone from high school, because of something that, compared to the perils of life in college, as a young adult, as a parent, et al, is mostly insignificant. The meager weight of the incident itself is overcome by the weight of how it felt when it happened, plus time; or, history.
It’s true for other things as well, though. Think of your introductions to your favorite music or films or books (or internet videos). I know The Corrections isn’t the best book ever written (although it’s very VERY good and great), I know “American Beauty” isn’t the best film ever made, and I sure as hell know that Everclear isn’t even remotely close to the best music ever made (feel the pain), but because those represented introductions in some way to really considering the power of those forms, they all have significance to me disproportionate to their actual worth – except probably The Corrections, I’m telling you, it’s amazing.
I saw a movie the other night, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” It’s down-the-line mediocre, with a notably solid performance by Zach Galifianakis. But watching it, I couldn’t help but admire it for being unabashedly meant for its intended audience – high schoolers. It’s quirky and funny and structured so that every single character has a little arc and everyone learns a lesson and there is a musical number and an animated sequence and some romance. It’s everything the typical high school kid wants in a movie about high school kids. It’s not the best movie of the year or even of this past week, but it’s a fine introduction to movies for a lot of teenagers out there.