Only One Rule That I Know Of, Babies
“The Song of the Cerulean Warbler”: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
“Where did the self-pity come from? The inordinate volume of it? By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.” — an excerpt from the autobiography of Patty Berglund, Mistakes Were Made
“She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life” runs the closing sentence of Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 breakthrough novel The Corrections. The spirit of that frangible wish for radical reinvention in any sense possible — of self, of a relationship, of the environment — holds at center his latest endeavor Freedom. A monument to a contemporary America tangled up and blue at home and abroad, Freedom teems with cultural wherewithal and satiric edge, narrative drawn in thick strokes on a broad canvas. The novel has got scope: parents and children, left and right, New York City and West Virginia, conservation and mountain top removal, Protestant work ethic and masturbation, Bob Dylan and Paul Wolfowitz, rescued songbirds and captured housecats.
A married couple washed up on the shores of middle age, Patty and Walter Berglund harbor deep uncertainties as to whether they are happy with what they have found. She is from Westchester, NY, relocated to the Midwest; he, a Minnesota native. Having been the first white couple to reclaim a Victorian on Barrier Street, the St. Paulites are thrown back on themselves when their two grown children set off to make their own way in the world. And what do Patty and Walter find? That they must also make their own way in the world: Patty absorbed by an autobiographical writing project premised on her helpless attachment to her son Joey and her nagging attraction to Walter’s best friend, a musician named Richard Katz; Walter, a risky environmental gambit funded by a Texas billionaire whereby miles on miles of untouched land in West Virginia will be stripped of mountaintops and coal and then set aside as a natural preserve for migrating cerulean warblers.
It is only around the rock ‘n roller Richard that Patty feels she can be “her unpretended true self.” And as Walter says to his assistant on the cerulean warbler initiative, a beautiful young woman of Indian descent: “I’m sorry… I’m still trying to figure out how to live.” How likely, then, that things will turn out okay?
Can there ever even be an okay in a world where, as Walter puts it to Richard, curiously echoing the late, great David Foster Wallace:
… there’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli.
As with The Corrections, Franzen again affirms what the novel is capable of affirming. No, really: it’s not just his media narrative. Like the underwater city of luminous beings in the finale of James Cameron’s The Abyss, only without the tens of millions of dollars in special effects and flagrant deus ex machina — special effects as deus ex machina — Freedom lifts survivors from the last ten years’ corporately published fiction to the surface. Joshua Henkin’s Matrimony, Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision, Jonathan Lethem’s New Yorker story “Lucky Alan”: they’re all there, with however many others, boundaries blown outward. In even-handed, unshowy prose, Franzen channels his inner C. Wright Mills, the personal and political collapsing in to one another, along with the mulm of polite opinion, niceness and its perils, denial and its undying champions dreaming of a world transfigured.
At last, Richard knocks on the bedroom door of the woman who married his best friend: “He listened carefully, enveloped in tinnitus. ‘Patty?’ he said again.”
Courage Is Love: War by Sebastian Junger
“The glory heaped upon heroes in almost all societies might explain why young men are so eager to send themselves to war — or, if sent, to fight bravely. That would only work in a species that is capable of language, however… once our ancestors escaped the eternal present by learning to speak, they could repeat stories that would make individuals accountable for their actions — or rewarded for them.” — Sebastian Junger
American combat operations in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, “the Afghanistan of Afghanistan,” as Sebastian Junger puts it, “too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off,” began and ended with a Medal of Honor. The first went posthumously to Lt. Michael P. Murphy, a Navy SEAL who placed himself in the line of fire to radio in reinforcements for his badly outnumbered team. Those four were among the first Americans to enter the valley, on a mission to eliminate a Taliban leader. They found themselves surrounded by a force of over one hundred after allowing shepherds who had stumbled on their position to walk away; the team had put to vote whether or not to kill them and decided against it. The second was awarded just about a week ago to Sergeant Salvatore A. Giunta of Battle Company, 503rd Infantry Regiment. He is the only living recipient of the medal since the Vietnam War.
Battle Company’s service in Korengal (“about half the size of Staten Island”) is the subject of Sebastian Junger’s intimate nonfiction document War, and the accompanying film, Restrepo, which he shot and directed with photographer Tim Hetherington. Author of commercial smash The Perfect Storm, Junger was embedded with Battle Company for five months over the course of a year, June 2007 to June 2008 (American forces withdrew from the valley in April of 2010). During that time he got to know a few of the soldiers well, in particular a commando named Brendan O’Byrne. Junger’s life depended on those bonds: he accompanied Second Platoon on numerous patrols and even a few missions behind enemy lines. The experience of coming under fire he examines in great detail, describing the body’s reaction to stress as measured by heart-rate:
Complex motor skills start to diminish at 145 beats per minute, which wouldn’t matter much in a swordfight but could definitely ruin your aim with a rifle. At 170 beats per minute you start to experience tunnel vision, loss of depth perception, and restricted hearing. And at 180 beats per minute you enter a netherworld where rational thought decays…
Battle Company, Junger notes, was taking “the most contact of the battalion, and the battalion… the most contact — by far — of any in the U.S. military.”
Most of the author’s time was spent on the mountain outpost named for Second Platoon’s guitar-playing medic Juan Restrepo who died in the first few months of deployment. The improvised base overlooks the valley below, “a miraculous kind of antiparadise… heat and dust and tarantulas and flies and no women and no running water and no cooked food and nothing to do but kill and wait.” As Jonathan Franzen writes of the fictional Midwesterner Walter Berglund’s family history: “The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.”
It is that dream of limitless freedom and the potential for its souring that Junger watches hang in balance in the minds of the men-boys around him, their humor, horseplay, boredom and belief. After not being washed for thirty-eight days uniforms “are so impregnated with salt that they can stand up by themselves.” During one of many slow moments in the cold winter months, O’Byrne states what could be the opening line of a short story: “I used to live a thousand feet above sea level, and we’d find seashells in the rocks along the side of the road.” No one has any kind of response for that, the way a mind can occupy two places at once just as geological traces of another lifetime mark a familiar landscape.
“The moral basis of the war doesn’t seem to interest soldiers much,” Junger writes, “and its long-term success or failure has a relevance of almost zero.” What drives them, instead: “These hillsides of loose shale and holly trees are where the men feel not most alive — that you can get skydiving — but the most utilized. The most necessary. The most clear and certain and purposeful. If young men could get that feeling at home, no one would ever want to go to war again, but they can’t.”
Thom Shanker of The New York Times detailed the awarding of the most recent Medal of Honor as follows:
“President Obama said ‘thank you’ for what I did,” Sergeant Giunta said in an interview from his current post in Vicenza, Italy, after getting a call from the president. “My heart was pounding out of my chest, so much that my ears almost stopped hearing. I had my wife by my side. She was holding my hand. When she heard me say, ‘Mr. President,’ she gave me a squeeze.”
–Jeff Price is a Brooklyn-based editor and writer.