Published: Sep 22, 2010
David Brooks is not my favorite op-ed columnist, but not because of his politics. It's his reporting. If you happen to know anything about the subject he's writing about, you often have to rub your eyes --- he twists the facts to make his case. So it was with his column about Jonathan Franzen and Franzen's new novel, Freedom. I was thinking about dissecting his column, on the theory that no facts are easier to check than the facts in a book a great many people are reading. Happily, my wife beat me to it, and, I think, nailed the flaws in his analysis. So let her have the floor:
Brooks: “Richard is an artist, but we don't really see the artist's commitment to his craft. Patty is an athlete, but we don't really see the team camaraderie that is the best of sport.” NOT TRUE. Richard is a pure artist, building decks for the rich instead of taking an office job. And Patty was a college basketball star --- Franzen takes an entire chapter to show how her team was her real family.
Having misread the characters, Brooks is now free to attack the novel for not being a different book.
Brooks: “There's almost no religion. There's very little about the world of work and enterprise. There's an absence of ethnic heritage, military service, technical innovation, scientific research or anything else potentially lofty and ennobling. …The serious parts of life get lopped off and readers have to stoop to inhabit a low-ceilinged world.” NOT TRUE. Most of the middle class would regard Franzen's concerns --- the quality of everyday life, the search for meaning, compromising and living with it --- as serious. Just as serious, to them, as tours of duty in the Army are to Brooks, who never served in the military.
Brooks: “'Freedom' is not Great Souls Seeking Important Truth. It's a portrait of an America where the important, honest, fundamental things are being destroyed or built over --- and people are left to fumble about, not even aware of what they have lost.” For Franzen, as for everyone from progressives to Tea Party conservatives, the unraveling of traditional America is today's number-one topic. Because his characters see what’s happening, they struggle to avoid being crushed by a heartless, failing Empire. But Brooks has no compassion for these people. His heroes are imaginary Americans who regard crisis as a great opportunity to buck up and reaffirm classic conservative values --- just as he does.
Bottom line: Brooks is jealous.