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Franzen's Female Trouble

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With apologies for being late to the Freedom book party:

Reviewers who called it "a masterpiece" and "a work of total genius," had me intrigued, but I'm glad I waited for a frugal friend, who bought the book at Costco, to finish reading and send it to me, rather than buying it myself. I stopped caring about Walter and Patty after they moved to Washington, that is, a third of the way through the book, once it became clear where Franzen was going with them, but I soldiered on and finished it last night.

Franzen has created a pretty interesting character, Patty, a woman of our generation, and the New Yorker excerpt was seductive: Franzen was being quite perceptive about what could be called the debilitating female agreeability gene. But then I opened the book and just when it seemed he was going to do something interesting and real with his Patty, he sprinted for a convention touchdown!

The theme of Freedom is utterly familiar: sexually bored female ruins her own life and her family's and then magically redeems herself when her hormones have abated post-menopause.

How many male reviewers have failed to notice or care about the conventionality? None. In fact, Franzen's 500-plus page iteration of the theme, with aging punk generation adults in place of Madame Bovary and her crew, merely provoked them to more elaborate riffs on his insightfulness.

Here's Tanenhaus of the Times: "Assaultive sex reverberates through "Freedom," and why not? Sex is the most insistent of the 'personal liberties,' and for Franzen the most equalizing. One is at a loss to think of another male American writer so at ease with ­-- that is, so genuinely curious about -- the economy of female desire: the pull and tug of attraction and revulsion, the self-canceling wants."

Let's have a look at this paragraph. First of all, ease and curiosity are two entirely different things, and Franzen is hardly a male writer "at ease with" female desire at all. He may be "genuinely curious" though, but there he gets in line behind Freud, among the many among "the default gender" who have pondered the supposed mystery. "What do women want?" the Viennese father of penis envy asked and, well, Franzen poses that question too, and still comes up empty-handed. He even has Patty state, for the record, in the waning days of her presumed sexual life (she's 52 at the end of the book, and that's pretty much it for her, she's happy to cuddle up with the man who bores her by then) that she really doesn't know what she wants.

Tannenhaus goes on to describe female desire as "a pull and tug of attraction" -- okay, I'm with him there -- "and revulsion" -- hmm, ick, okay, maybe, but he's losing me -- and finally, "the self-canceling wants."

What are these self-cancelling wants that are so specifically female? Do women's desires really cancel themselves?

In Franzen's book, here are some of the things that cancel Patty's want, that have nothing to do with her "self." Number one: her first sexual experience is a rape. Number two, directly related to number one: She reasonably fears being abandoned by a caddish man that she lusts after, whose caddishness has nothing to do with her "self." Number three: She gets married out of fear and has babies too young. Number four: When children are in the picture, women's desire for anyone but their father is ruinous to the babies.

Women don't "self-cancel" their wants.

Tanenhaus uses Franzen's Freedom to draw the following conclusion: "Sexual freedom, for women no less than men, "the default gender," to borrow a term from Franzen's second novel, Strong Motion, is yet another form of entrapment."

Wrong, Sam. Bearing the children of a man who doesn't do it for you in bed, that's entrapment.

While it is true that sexually bored females can destroy their own lives, American women in Patty's generation and the ones after her don't all make the retro choices she made. And women who don't make the choices Patty made (for those who haven't read Freedom, I'm not spoiling it by saying she chooses safety over risk and lives a life of silent frustration thereafter, like a character in Ibsen or Puritan New England) lead productive lives, with healthier children and happier men around them.

How can it be 2010, and the premier chronicler of American family dynamics in our generation producing this retro, cautionary tale about the dreadful consequences of female lust? And then, being called a genius for it? We don't live in Afghanistan, boys.