When I recommended Freedom to my sister a couple years ago, in a post that proved to have a broader appeal than I thought it would, I only did so because it was about marriage. Caitlin was about to get married to her American boyfriend, and due to immigration law, would likely be a housewife for at least the first few months of her marriage. “American housewife” immediately brought Freedom‘s Patty Berglund to mind.
I’d completely forgotten that Freedom takes place in St. Paul, Minnesota, the very city Caitlin was moving too. She got around to reading it recently, and her contribution to Franzen in February is a Freedom-centric tour of St. Paul.
Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill – the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen on hard times three decades earlier.
According to Blake, the morning’s KSTP weather forecast had been stupid, the Paulsens had put their recycling barrel in a stupid place, the seat-belt beeper in his truck was stupid not to shut off after sixty seconds, the commuters driving the speed limit on Summit Avenue were stupid, the stoplight at Summit and Lexington was stupidly timed…
He got an Ivy League scholarship offer but instead went to Macalester, close enough to Hibbing to take a bus up on weekends and help his mom combat the motel’s encroaching decay (the dad apparently now had emphysema and was useless).
Central High School
It happened that one of the popular ninth-grade girls at Joey’s own school, Central High, had come home from a family trip to New York City with a cheap watch, widely admired at lunch hour.
Caitlin and I are indebted to this article, which appeared in a local paper just as Freedom was published. The author’s excitement at his hometown’s prominence in a novel is embarrassingly Canadian. There are a couple gems in the comments, too: “too much sex geez the guy needs an editor.” Yeah, yeah, we know.
Wake up, sheeple.
You think you know what the Jennifer Weiner/Jonathan Frazen feud is all about? VIDA counts? Unchecked egos? Social media? Literary vs. commercial fiction?
You’ve been lied to. It’s time to uncover the truth.
FACT: Jennifer Weiner coined the hashtag #Franzenfreude on August 15th, 2010, just two weeks before Franzen’s fourth novel, Freedom, was published. Jennifer Weiner’s eighth novel, Fly Away Home, was released just two months earlier, on July 13, 2010.
Nothing too surprising there, right? Of course both authors were spoiling for a fight; they had books to promote. Let’s go a little deeper.
FACT: Jennifer Weiner’s debut novel, Good in Bed, was published on May 8th, 2001, less than four months before Franzen’s breakthrough novel, The Corrections.
Weiner and Franzen both broke out in 2001 with semi-autobiographical novels, and both were alternately criticized and lauded for breaking down genre barriers. Weiner elevated chick-lit, while Franzen made serious literachah accessible; both were nudging their way to the middlebrow, one moving on up, one slumming. They’re more alike than they’d like to admit.
Their books are more alike than they’d like to admit, too. Or at least, more than one of them would like to admit.
THE SHOCKING TRUTH: Weiner started the feud with Franzen to deflect attention from the fact that Fly Away Home is a watered-down version of The Corrections.
THE EVIDENCE: Yeah, both books are about family break down and middle class malaise and how parents fuck up their kids, but, what book isn’t? This goes way deeper. SPOILERS AHOY:
- The Mom Who Just Wants The Family To Be Together For The Holidays, Damn it: In Freedom, mom Enid is a neurotic mess (his moms always are.) In Fly Away Home, mom Sylvie is a Strong Woman (her heroines always are.) Both moms fixate on One Last Family Dinner with Everybody, Even My Ne’er Do Well Youngest Child and Even My Awful Husband. Hilarity ensues.
- The Stoic Dad Who Ruins Everything: Both patriarchs are men used to being taken care of by women. Both get into trouble, of the financial and health variety on one side, and of the “oops slept with an intern” variety on the other, and both proceed to do fuck all about it while heir wives and children bear the brunt. Resentment, and eventually, groove-back-getting, ensues.
- The Abused Teenage Daughter: In The Corrections, teenage Denise “dates” someone at her father’s work, though “date” is a stretch since she’s just graduated high school, and he’s a middle aged man. We don’t find out till much later how much dad Albert knew, and how it affected and still affects the Lambert family. In Fly Away Home, Lizzie is sexually assaulted as a young teen. Her parents find out immediately and don’t really do anything. Both sets of parents knew their daughter was being abused, and dealt with it by not dealing with it. Trauma ensues.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl/Boy: In The Corrections, Chip is the inept man-child. He’s always running some harebrained scheme, avoiding his problems, and abusing substances. In Fly Away Home, Lizzie is an inept woman-child. All her harebrained schemes and substance abuse is in the past (no fun,) but she definitely can’t adult. Redemption and maturity via marriage and babies ensues.
- The Capable Adult Who Acts Out In Inappropriate Ways (That Means Sex): Two inappropriate work place romances and two names that start with D. Fly Away Home‘s Diana is the good sister. She’s got the house, the family, the career. She’s also banging one of her medical students. In The Corrections, good sister Denise is a rising star in the culinary world. She’s also banging her boss’s wife. Graphic sex ensues.
- Gross Guys Named Gary: In Freedom, Gary is the older brother, outwardly the most conventional of the Lambert siblings, but inwardly such a mess of neurosis, addiction, and anxiety it’s a wonder he’s still standing. He does fall off a ladder, actually, at one point. He’s depicted as dripping with sweat, bleeding, muttering, exploding in anger, and generally just “unlikeable” personified. In Fly Away Home, Gary is Diana’s hapless husband, a beta-male extraordinaire, also sweaty, and flabby, balding, pale, whiny, dependent, shiftless… he has no redeeming qualities and I somehow hated him more after Diana cheats on him. Emasculation ensues.
I was going to end the post here. But then I thought, what is it’s every more complicated? This is a conspiracy theory, after all. Maybe Weiner didn’t want to hide the fact that Fly Away Home is sloppy The Corrections fanfic. Maybe she wanted us to know it.
FACT: Fly Away Home spent eight weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list in 2010 and peaked at #2. Freedom spent 29 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list in 2010-2011 and spent three of those weeks at #1. Fly Away Home fell off the list the very week Freedom debuted at #1.
By Weiner’s standards, Fly Away Home was a flop. Her website boasts that her twelve books “have spent over five years on the New York Times bestseller [sic] list,” which, by my calculations, means most of them stick around a lot longer than eight weeks. Getting bumped off just as Franzen ascends was enough to send her over the edge.
She needed a boost. Some publicity. You know what they say about publicity, right?
THE EVEN MORE SHOCKING TRUTH: Weiner started the feud with Franzen to deflect attention from the fact that Fly Away Home is a watered-down, simplified version of The Corrections UNTIL it didn’t sell, at which point she intensified the feud in hopes that someone would uncover the horrible truth, boosting sales and recovering her best seller list honour.
There’s just one problem. There are two types of people in this world: Those who read Weiner, and those who read Franzen. Okay, clearly, there is a third type who doesn’t give a fuck, but work with me here. No one noticed, because no one read both The Corrections and Fly Away Home. Until now.
And if all this doesn’t convince you that you’ve been lied to for years?
FACT: On October 4th, 2010, Franzen was in London promoting Freedom when his glasses were stolen. As in stolen off his face. A 27 year old student attempted to ransom them for $100,000 before being caught by police, who were aided in the chase by a helicopter and dogs.
FACT: Jennifer Weiner was in London on October 4th promoting Fly Away Home. Coincidence?
This isn’t over. I will be vigilant. I’ve got my eye on you, Ms. Weiner. If your next book is a thinly-veiled retelling of Great Expectations, except with Internet and fascism, a la Purity, I will be there. If any of your post-2010 novels feature a stay-at-home mom and/or birds and/or washed-up rock stars, a la Freedom, I will be there.
And Mr. Franzen, don’t think you’re off the hook. You don’t become The Great American Novelist without some kind of shady dealings.
The truth is out there.