In preparation for a full-blown rant against Jonathan Franzen’s bestselling novel Freedom, I’d like to premise my attack with another book – a polemic. Polemics are sort of fun if you’re in the right state of mind. Freedom did not put me in the right state of mind. Quite a few women I’ve talked to who have read the book had similar experiences. Apparently the male literati did not share these feelings.
Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote:
“[Franzen] not only created an unforgettable family, he’s also completed his own transformation from a sharp-elbowed, apocalyptic satirist focused on sending up the socio-economic-political plight of this country into a kind of 19th-century realist concerned with the public and private lives of his characters.” Or, plainly spoken, Franzen writes about relationships – all heterosexual – between unhappy people.
Curits Sittenfeld of The Observer – whose review was more of a lengthy summary – was a little more skeptical. Like Sittenfeld, I came to Freedom as a fan of The Corrections. Sittenfeld, however, did ultimately join the team.
“It was somewhere around page 158 of Freedom that I managed to forgive the book for not being The Corrections and begin enjoying it for what it is: an ethnography of a particular marriage; a meditation on the disappointments and compromises of approaching and then inhabiting middle age; and a long, juicy, scathing, funny and poignant indictment of contemporary American life.”
I have read a few books in the last few years in which authors have theorized about the relationship between living in an industrialized nation and the near-pandemic in depression and anxiety, not to mention a skyrocketing divorce rate among the populations of these societies. In order to back up my own “review” of Freedom, drawing some rough sketch of marriage in the era of late capitalism might be helpful, and a polemic perhaps a valid approach. Before Franzen, there was Kipnis…
In her book Against Love, Laura Kipnis makes no bones about the fact her book is a polemic, one that examines the choke hold that the American work ethic – a great source of national pride – has on love and marriage. As a professor of Media Studies at Northwestern University, Kipnis finds plenty of reasons to theorize against “sacrosanct subjects like love.” She writes, “To begin with, who would dream of being against love? No one. Love is, as everyone knows, a mysterious and all-controlling force, with vast power over our thoughts and life decisions…But isn’t there something a bit worrisome about all this uniformity of opinion?” The polemic, Kipnis argues, is her chosen form to tackle the quasi-taboo position against love and marriage because, she writes, “Polemics exist to poke holes in cultural pieties and turn received wisdom on its head…[and are] designed to be the prose equivalent of a small, explosive device placed underneath your E-Z Boy lounger.” Kipnis’ prose is often inflammatory, provocative and, first and foremost, brutally humorous. She looks deep into the cultural and societal framework that created “modern love” and marriage in order to discover and expose possible currents of mal-contentedness she believes stem primarily from capitalist models of productivity that have infiltrated and contaminated domesticity since the Industrial Revolution. Kipnis invokes Freud, Marcuse, Marx and Foucault in what seems at first like an adulterer’s manifesto but escalates like Ravel’s Bolero into a high-pitched rallying cry to rescue LOVE itself from the clutches of discipline and repression in a single movement.
In the first part of Against Love, Kipnis proposes the work ethic and native language of the factory as culpable partners in the emotional exhaustion of coupledom, citing the failure of mechanization and technological progress to reduce overall hours spent on labor, both in and away from the office. Kipnis asks “How can you not admire a system so effective at swallowing all alternatives to itself that it can make something as abject as ‘working for love’ sound admirable?…if private life in post-industrialism now means that relationships now take work too, if love is the latest form of alienated labor, would rereading [Marx’s] Capital as a marriage manual be the most appropriate response?”
In Rebecca Meads’s review of Against Love in the New Yorker (August 2003), she argues that Kipnis’ book proposes “the structure of contemporary marriage, with its exceptions of lifetime fidelity, belongs to the apparatus of state control. A population that willingly polices itself through the interdictions of married life…has given up any revolutionary strivings, and will submit to other repressive social orders.” Kipnis, in her chapter “Domestic Gulags” gives a laundry list of “Can’t Do’s” in coupledom, which I found both hilarious and depressing and left me in a crumpled heap on the couch.
Kipnis’ discussion on gay marriage is intriguing. In the wake of the Clinton scandals, Kipnis writes, “Congress was suddenly awash in matrimonial enthusiasm” which led to the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), supported by the likes of House Speaker Gingrich and other matrimonial hypocrites. Kipnis, in her tone of glib irony, argues, “Obviously marriage needed defending, but was it from gay weddings or from its own disaffected habitués? No, it could only be lesbians picking out silver patterns and gay men marching down the aisle to the strains of Pachelbel’s
Canon driving all those otherwise contented heterosexuals to Divorce Court.”
Overall, the book suggests adultery as a form of social protest – “adultery is the sit down strike of the love-takes-work ethic;” and likewise, Kipnis interrogates marriage as an antiquated and rigid social institution in need of a major overhaul, one from which the heterosexual citizenry is currently and will continue to flee in droves, having sought to suffocate human desire in its never-ending restrictions. Thus, Kipnis exposes the “family values” crisis for what it really might be – the mass antipathy towards socially, politically and religiously regulated love between two individuals (or more).
In her review of Against Love, Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek writes, “The [Kipnis’] point is that marriage, which ostensibly jerks us into a lockstep of manageability that should ideally last a lifetime, serves society more than it serves the human spirit.” Kipnis doesn’t ignore the obvious dichotomy between the dearth of public money spent to alleviate poverty for the working class family along with decreasing funds available for education and the high-decibel booty call of the religious right to condemn, tar and feather divorcees and would-be transgressors. Against Love is not ultimately against love but a book that reads against the grain of institutionalized, regulated and repressed love. Kipnis offers no solutions, just Morpheus’ proverbial “red pill” – or, like Mead says, Kipnis “throws the bomb and then she runs. Fast.” In this sense, I would argue Kipnis’ speculative stance – the liberating potential of uncertainty she locates in the moments preceding even the slightest revolutionary impulse (a place she argues we now are as a culture with regards to marriage)–makes her decidedly Romantic.
Now to Freedom…