Thursday, October 14, 2010

I have been holding off on blogging for a bit because I wanted to brag on Christopher's Teacher of the Year awards night--and I have video to go along with the post, so it's not just idle chatter. But we have to figure out how to upload the cd to this blog, so I will save it for later. Suffice it to say that despite the fact that things are generally politically ecologically and economically going to hell in a handbasket, the younger generation is coming up, coming up, growing and learning and reaching and grasping, and there are wonderful teachers out there--not just Christopher, but of course, including him--who are meeting them with open arms.

By this I mean that all 18 of the teachers who were honored as Teachers of the Year from their respective schools were wonderful and inspiring. (And the special ed teachers seemed to love their work best of all.)

I had expected to be proud of Christopher; I had expected to eat high-fat hors d'oeuvres deep-fried and oozing with cream cheese; I had expected to put on some make-up and debate with myself about wearing heels (no, too uncomfortable.) I didn't expect to be so moved by everyone else's video presentation as well as my husband's. To see that even in this day and age when Obama's "Race to the Top" has replaced Bush's "No Child Left Behind" as a program that is supposed to look like educational reform but actually treats education more like a corporate business than a human endeavor, there are still men and women who wake up every day and spend their time listening, communicating, and inspiring young people.

And some of them have managed to hang onto their jobs even in this economy and are continuing to serve youth.

Some very good lives are being lived even in the midst of our current global mess; that is the good news. It's like the rescue of the Chilean miners, which was such an incredible high even to read about. See what we are capable of when we put our minds to it?

Now onto Franzen's Freedom. Spoiler alert: if you have not read the book and intend to, and/or if you are in the middle of the book and have not yet finished it, stop reading the blog now. Walk away from the blog. I don't want to wreck it for anyone. I like the book very much. It's not perfect but it's ambitious, big-hearted, sprawling, and in so many places heart-breakingly accurate about how we humans think, love, and act, that it definitely merits reading.

And for the record, I loved The Corrections. I mean, The Corrections was so good it was almost painful to read it. And I don't hold Franzen's arrogance against him. The man is brilliant, hard-working, and seems tortured. So he gets a little testy and is impolitic at times. There are worse sins.

But having said all that, I have to ask: why, when white writers write about characters of color are those characters more easily killed off than any of the white (central) characters? Why are the characters of color so... expendable?

In this book, more so than The Corrections, I felt like I could second-guess Franzen's personal prejudices. For one thing, the guy really believes in marriage. If two people get married, that's it. They may cheat on each other, but at the end of the day those are the bonds that will count. This has not been my experience in real life, so I accuse Franzen of being a old-fashioned and traditional and in that sense unrealistic. But whatever. My objection as a reader is that sensing this prejudice made the actions of the characters predictable in a way that I didn't want them to be.

But my main objection is with the character of Lalitha. I tried to imagine myself reading this if I were an South Asian Indian woman. We are expected to believe in Lalitha as a paragon of sexiness and drive (literally: she is always driving him everywhere), who is sexually and romantically besotted with her much-older boss, almost completely uncritical and patient and forebearing. Lalitha is a fountain of unconditional love and goodness until she is conveniently killed off (I'm sorry, I SAID spoiler alert) so that said boss can re-unite with his (very imperfect, fully-fomed character) (white) wife.

The white characters are allowed to be full human beings with flaws and warts. The Asian woman has to be perfect, and in the end she is sacrificed so that the dysfunctional white family can knit itself back together again in a more functional pattern.

Thanks Lalitha for all the great sex and all the good work; you can die now., putting myself in the shoes of the Indian woman, how do I feel about this?

Mad, I think. And tired. Hasn't this trope gotten a little old?

Please understand, I am not usually the kind of reader who goes out looking for politically incorrect things with which to crucify successful writers. I just couldn't help noticing, that's all. And unfortunately it's right in the center of this very ambitious, very successful, probably going to get nominated for the Pulitzer Prize winning book.

Just sayin'.


Anonymous said...

Well, Freedom didn't get nominated for the National Book Award. I did not share your enthusiasm for The Corrections and when it won the National Book Award, I sorta stopped paying attention to that award.

I enjoyed reading your comments about Freedom and could easily enjoying hearing much more of your thoughts about Franzen's latest. I don't think I would like the guy and I don't like a lot about his stories/characters, such as the theme you point to related to the nonwhite Lalitha ... good call, Allison.

But I give Franzen this: he can write. In my opinion, he captures something that is very similar to my experience of 'being' as well as anyone writing today. He captures so much so well. But he creates characters that I don't much like .. . I didn't really like Lalitha. She seemed unrealistic to me. How many smoking hot young India-Americans, well educated would fall for a middle-aged white boss, and fall in LUST with the guy and turn over her whole life for a dweeby unhappy middle aged white boy? I suggest that is Franzen's own fantasy life . . .

also, in response to your remarks about Franzen's belief in the enduring power of marriage, I don't think he has ever been married and I don't think he is as old as Walter and Patty are at the end . . . again, I think that is white male fantasy life when he puts them back together. ..

in theory, I, too, believe that the real call to a commitment 'like' marriage is to love someone past everything. In theory, that call intrigues me. And I have known couples that pull apart and come back together. My best friend recently separated into separate homes from her husband of 20 years and they filed for divorce but when the guy's one year lease was up on the rental he moved into while they finalized the details of divorce, they got back together. It wasn't fiction: it happened So it can happen in fiction that Walter and Patty got back together. I think the real flaw in what Franzen does with Walter and Patty . .. . well, I guess I don't know what the real flaw is. It's fiction. The writer makes choices. Franzen had to tame the beast of the book, wrap it up . .. maybe his work is not so much about how his stories flow but him sitting down and writing the stuff inside him and the realities of printing a book require that he stop.

I read somewhere that while he was writing Freedom, Franzen spent a lot of time teaching in Germany and he widely remarked that Freedom was going to have a lot of Germany in it but there is nothing about Germany in it and it is still a very long novel. He made choices.

We all want more clarity than we tend to get in life. I don't like the choices Franzen makes. I think his choices tell us a lot about him and his choices 'mirror' his readers to themselves.

I don't think it really matters if Walter and Patty actually get back together. Life goes on no matter what choices humans make.

I totally agree with the way he made Lalitha so dispensable is a writing trope that would best be dispensed with by all writers. I can imagine Franzen simply wanting to write in a person of color and he chose a marginal character because if he had made Walter or Patty nonwhite he would have had to change everything.

PLUS his choice of using a first generation American with heritage from India was very trendy. He didn't make Lalitha AFrican American or Chinese American . . . he made her even more exotic.

going with indian was hip and artists affected by fashion even when they think they are beyond trends and fashion, artists r humans influenced by culture just like everyone else

Anonymous said...

thanks for ths info. i was ambivalent about reading this book. now, i will not...

colleen said...

I loved "Freedom," I really really did. I never thought about the character of Lalitha but now I will; you are correct. Perhaps the rest of what he has to say about the culture doesn't make up for his killing off of this lovely woman -- I liked her character and thought she was trying very hard to be a person she wasn't allowed by HER culture to be -- but I thought what he did with all the characters and the Bush administration and all the junk that we have to live with was pretty perfect.