Jesús Blanco Hidalga, Jonathan Franzen and the Romance of Community: Narratives of Salvation (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), 251 pp.
The critical discourse on (post-)modern society is replete with lamentations over the loss of community. Since the publication of Ferdinand Tönnies’s Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887), sociologists have related this decline to urbanization and industrialization. More recent studies, such as Robert Bellah et al.’s Habits of the Heart (1985) and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000), have added rampant individualism and modern technology, especially TV and the internet, to the list of problems undermining community, civic engagement, and ultimately, democracy in the United States. Raghuram Rajan’s current analysis in The Third Pillar (2019) attributes the erosion of community to rapid technological change and the growing influence of the market and the state, which provide fertile ground for the rise of populist nationalism and left-wing radicalism. Some critics, however, hold opposite views, stressing the revival of community and local activism especially since the last presidential election: “a systemic immune response in the body politic, producing a surge in engagement among [Trump’s] opponents [which even] crosses ideological lines” (Liu).
Similarly, the title of Jesús Blanco Hidalga’s first book, Jonathan Franzen and the Romance of Community: Narratives of Salvation (2017), suggests a cautiously optimistic perspective on American communities in Franzen’s works. This impression seems to be confirmed by Hidalga’s Marxist theoretical framework, most notably Fredric Jameson’s idea of romance as a narrative paradigm that “sees history in the salvational perspective of some ultimate liberation” (Jameson, Political Unconscious 87). Hidalga shares the Marxist’s concern that the postmodern “crisis of historicity” (Jameson, Postmodernism 22) and skepticism towards metanarratives have shattered the belief in social progress by projecting a “seemingly unshakable reality of ideologically legitimized oppression and exploitation” (Hidalga 29). Contemporary critics have accused Franzen of reinforcing this pessimistic view by inventing “characters stripped of agency,” who are caught up in a struggle against a “hegemonic and incontestable” system (Annesley 125). Hidalga takes a fresh look at this reading by invoking Jameson’s persistence on the Marxist dialectic between ideology and utopia and by examining the role of realism and the romance tradition in Franzen’s fiction.
Jonathan Franzen and the Romance of Community challenges the ‘conversion view’ of Franzen’s literary career, which distinguishes between a postmodern and a realist stage in the writer’s development (Rebein). In its place, Hidalga proposes a new “metanarrative,” “the narrative of conversion,” which is closely related to Franzen’s longstanding commitment to realism and his increasing interest in the eponymous “romance of community” (81-82). Hidalga praises realism for its in-depth analysis of complex social relations and its consequent ability to demystify the system. But, in his Marxist reading of both narrative forms, realism is ultimately defined as a conservative genre that is characterized by “narrative stagnation,” while the romance is “filled with narrative promise” (218). Typical characteristics of the romance genre, such as adventure quests or the antagonism of ‘good and evil,’ are largely absent from Hidalga’s analysis. As the title of his study indicates, he is mainly interested in the happy ending of Franzen’s novels and the ‘magical’ conversion of his characters. Discussing Franzen’s fiction in chronological order, Hidalga concludes that his first book, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), a bitterly pessimistic political thriller, is the only novel lacking the hitherto ignored genre characteristics he is looking for. The writer’s most recent novel, Purity (2015), on the other hand, gets closer to the romance genre than any other of Franzen’s works while lacking the “romance-like closure” (236) of Strong Motion (1991), The Corrections (2001), and Freedom (2010).
In each chapter, Hidalga goes to great lengths to explain why Franzen is unable to write politically engaged fiction and resigns himself to stating the impossibility of social change. The main arguments offered are Franzen’s focus on the “postmodern condition” (Lyotard 3) and his ‘difficult’ position as an “American white straight male novelist with social concerns” (73), who struggles with his loss of “cultural authority” in the age of “identity politics” (203). Because of this insurmountable dilemma, Hidalga argues, Franzen turned to the romance genre and started to write novels that include “a symbolic space in which deplored historical facts are not quite irreparable or definitive” (13): the private sphere or the community of lovers and the family, where Franzen’s dysfunctional and disillusioned protagonists, who are “faced with the impossibility of social transformation, […] take the road of self-amelioration” (165). According to Hidalga, this strategy allows Franzen “to transcend social and ideological contradictions that he is unable or unwilling to confront and thus attain the bliss of social and personal reconciliation” (27).
Jonathan Franzen and the Romance of Community takes on the challenging task of vindicating Franzen as a literary intellectual while being fully aware of the increasingly critical response to his work. Hidalga’s study can thus be seen as an attempt to resolve the most obvious contradiction in the reception of a writer who has been hailed as a “great American novelist” (Grossman), while being heavily criticized for his narrow, white, male, middle-class views and his satirical depiction of social activism, especially feminism (Hutchinson; Cunha). As indicated above, Hidalga pursues this project within a Marxist framework, which suits his aim but also causes him to privilege ‘class’ over other categories of social, cultural, and literary analysis, such as ‘gender’ and ‘race.’ As a result, his study fails to take the mounting critique of Franzen’s work seriously. Admittedly, this critique is not entirely absent, but it is clearly softened and sometimes suppressed. Hidalga even replicates Franzen’s gender and race bias by repeating his argument about the ‘disempowered’ literary mainstream and by including key issues and events such as Franzen’s strong focus on male heroes and his dispute with Oprah Winfrey only as footnotes. Hidalga is less inclined to defend the author when it comes to the latter’s class bias, but at times even the observation that Franzen denies “the persistence of class struggle and [his] own partaking in it” (15) does little to diminish Hidalga’s admiration for the novelist’s achievements. Towards the end of his introduction, he writes:
Indeed, in spite of all the class bias, limitations of perspective and ideological blind spots that can be found in Franzen’s social vision, the analytico-pedagogical impulse that characterizes his fiction, his vocation for the rendering of synthetic visions of totality, his keenness on demystification are truly remarkable in contemporary American fiction. (36)
Hidalga’s perspective on Franzen becomes less apologetic and more critical in the course of his study, and his investigation of Franzen’s class bias is particularly strong and nuanced in the chapter on Freedom (2010), which also provides the most convincing literary analysis. There are plenty of useful insights to be gained from the previous chapters as well, but they tend to be more theory-driven, forcing the discussion of Franzen’s novels into the background. Hidalga relies on an impressively wide range of theories and concepts, including Sigmund Freud’s death drive, Ulrich Beck’s risk society, and Ernesto Laclau and Chantalle Mouffe’s notion of social division and antagonism, to name but a few. Moreover, his analyses contain extended discussions of other contemporary literary authors and their works.
After an introduction and four analytical chapters, the book finishes with a conclusion and an epilogue, which contains a short summary and analysis of Franzen’s fifth novel, Purity. Even though Hidalga stresses the exceptionality of Franzen’s most recent work of fiction in the preface, one is left with the impression that the epilogue was added in haste to include Franzen’s entire fictional oeuvre. The analysis of Purity is considerably less refined than the other readings and seems ill-placed after the conclusion, not least because the romance genre plays a key role in this chapter.
Similar to some of the aspects outlined above, Hidalga’s insights into Franzen’s view of American communities is intriguing but inconclusive. The question whether Franzen’s romance-inspired shift from the public to the private sphere of the family is a way to escape from politics or to provide “a metaphor for a possible social pact” (191) is left unanswered, and the author’s fictional communities are varyingly described as being defined by sameness (or inclusion) and difference (or exclusion). Even though this indecisiveness is in line with the above-mentioned dialectic of ideology and utopia, some tensions and contradictions in Jonathan Franzen and the Romance of Community seem to result from the book’s eclectic, theoretical ‘superstructure’ and Hidalga’s admiration for the author rather than its Marxist ‘base.’
Anna Thiemann (Münster)
Cunha, Darlena. “Jonathan Franzen: The Great American Misogynist.” The Establishment. Medium, 21 Nov. 2015. Web. 7 Sept. 2019. https://medium.com/the-establishment/jonathan-franzen-the-great-american-misogynist-e6872de0ecea.
Grossman, Lev. “Great American Novelist: Interview with Jonathan Franzen.” Time. Time, 12 Aug. 2010. Web. 7 Sept. 2019. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2010185,00.html.
Liu, Eric. “How Donald Trump Is Reviving American Democracy.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic, 7 Mar. 2017. Web. 7 Sept. 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/03/how-donald-trump-is-reviving-our-democracy/518928/.