In a distant incarnation of self, circa 1991, I was a member of the grunge scene in Portland, Maine. This did not entail much. I frequented bars, stayed razor-edge thin, and was sort-of (although I could be mistaken) dating a drummer from a band called Otis Coyote. One evening, we attended a party. Instantly, the crowd sorted itself into the musicians (males) and the people who had shown up with the musicians (females). I could only wonder what the musicians were talking about. I imagined they were discussing the things that the drummer talked about—music, books, wild stories from the not too distant past—while I pretended interest in the canned food drive that socially-conscious metal band Tesla had organized in coordination with their upcoming concert: whoever brought the most cans got to meet the band. My forays to join the musicians were met with a silent curiosity or the statement, “there’s more beer in the fridge.” This was a fight waiting to happen—which I promptly initiated at first opportunity—and I anticipated every word leveled at me in the car on the way home: snob, elitist, snob. I knew to steer clear of talking gender because I didn’t need “harpy” added to the others.
I recently finished Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. I devoured this book and enjoyed it. The spirited writing in Eugenides’s most recent novel—his take on semiotics, awkward humanitarian gestures, earnest dress rehearsals for mature married life—makes for good reading. I’m of the right age for this book: older and happy to see what writers make of the time of my youth. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from The Goon Squad took this phenomenon as its organizing principal and one of the perks of hitting forty is enjoying the long look back. On this count, The Marriage Plot is a blast. I relived my bewilderment at having Derrida deployed as a textual cure all, as if he were the Tiger Balm of critics. Madeleine’s hangover, which opens the book, caused me to flash back with such immediacy that I wondered if 80s hangovers weren’t of a particular sort. But I experienced a refluent anxiety on finishing this novel, anxiety at being a woman. It’s the same feeling I get when I’m not really paying attention to a conversation and laugh at the joke before processing that the joke’s been made at the expense of Catholics, or some other easily pilloried group. It’s not that Madeleine—the woman in a triad of main characters— isn’t well-drawn and believable, because she is, nor that her actions aren’t, on a page-turning level, compelling, because they are. But honestly, Madeleine is boring. She lacks the vigor of her male novel mates. She lacks Leonard’s academic brilliance and charismatic mania. She lacks Mitchell’s religious groping and self-conscious wit. All this is by design, no doubt, but still she’s a person of little complication and depth. I wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with her. The other female character who draws attention is Claire, someone who promotes her awareness of women’s issues by policing Mitchell’s ogling women on the street—even though the women ogle back—and who undermines any respect the reader might have for her grasp of sexuality when we learn (spoiler!) that she is actually dating a gay man. To me, Claire reads as a large child, living off parental money and privileged connection in Paris, someone who will never realize that feminists fight for things like equal pay and professional recognition. Instead of policing Mitchell’s attention to other women, her time would have been better spent observing her own boyfriend. But then again, Claire apes sophistication without understanding anything, and this is how feminism is portrayed in this book.
This brings me to another large novel, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Why do I couple these books? Well, both were much-anticipated works from respected authors in the last two years. Both nailed their landings in the public readership. Both received massive reviews in the New York Review of Books. If you detect a little jealousy here, you’re wrong. It’s full blown envy and it does make me do things like count the number of books by women reviewed in that publication. Also the number of books reviewed by women. Also the number of books by women reviewed only by other women. I don’t reserve this policing for NYRB, but I do read this publication and am made aware regularly. I am a feminist. Make your joke and I will probably laugh before realizing—awkwardly and with anxiety—it has been made at my expense.
But back to Freedom. Freedom is the story of Patty and Walter Berglund’s marriage, and Walter’s earnest idealism is the wind that fills the sails and gets this boat in motion. Like Walter, I like birds. Like Walter, I deplore mountaintop removal. That sounds facile, but not for me. I’m a huge fan of the political novel and believe, with heartfelt and possibly naïve enthusiasm, that books like this can educate people about environmental, social, and political ills. Lionel Shriver’s So Much For That, which looks at the healthcare industry, should be required reading for anyone affected by health. So I read Freedom enthusiastically, cheering for the outing of the corruption of Big Business and D.C. lobbying, and for the lens trained on warmongering as a moneymaking venture. But after finishing this book, I was again disappointed by the dippiness of the female characters. Patty Berglund’s flailing around to define herself made it difficult for anything of much interest to stick. My issue is not with her being credible, but why couldn’t she have been as compelling as Walter, who believes not only in something, but in many things? There are several female characters— among them Jenna, a stunning preppy icon, and Connie, loving and excruciatingly pathetic— in this long book, who languish, trapped by the apparent dullness of their gender. Perhaps Lalitha—a vibrant and attractive arrival about a third way into the novel—transcends at points. She is a politically motivated and intelligent person; she is also a tremendously noble creature who manages to stir not only admiration for balding, overweight, polemical Walter, but also desires him with a bottomless, prickling lust. She’s also a “pretty young dark-skinned” martyr to her dreams and, ultimately, poor driving.
In the past two years, were there larger books than Freedom and The Marriage Plot? Well, Goon Squad joined that crowd after award notice, but—other than debuts—no other book springs to mind. Know this: I like big books—big important fiction books—because they ought to exist, and sometimes—like the Cerulean Warbler of Freedom—their survival is not assured. Literary novels like The Marriage Plot and Freedom that reach a broad a readership are rare cultural opportunities to create dialogue about the societies represented within, the people represented within, and, in the subject of this short piece, the women represented within. We are told that Patty Berglund and Madeleine Hanna are attractive, appealing people, but they weren’t attractive to this reader—although they both read as sexually attractive—and seem to promote, in the worlds of their respective novels, the possibility that women are just less interesting than men. This is less of an attack than an observation and, since I read both these books with respect for their astute representations of society, I wonder if I live in a world where it is accepted that women are the duller, less intellectual, more sexually-defined gender. Is this true?
Let me end with a fictional scenario. You’re at a party, which has, in the way of some parties, sorted itself according to gender. In one corner, we have Walter Berglund and Richard Katz—a pivotal character, and, fittingly, a musician— of Freedom, and Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus of The Marriage Plot. On the other side of the room, you have Madeleine Hanna and Claire from The Marriage Plot, and Patty Berglund, Lalitha, Jenna, and Connie of Freedom. AND you’re in the mood for conversation—real conversation. Where do you go? Who do you want to spend your time with?