When I was in graduate school, I took a seminar in literary realism, which involved reading a lot of thick French, English, and American novels from the 19th through mid-20th centuries. I can’t remember everything that was on the list but I know we started with Balzac’s Lost Illusions, moved through Bleak House and Madame Bovary and were on Dreiser’s Sister Carrie or Frank Norris’s McTeague when I commented to the professor how interesting it was that he had picked novels that were centered on a common theme. “What do you mean?” he asked me. “Well,” I said, “all of these books are about money. They all have plot points that revolve around debt. I thought you had done that on purpose.”

As it turned out, he hadn’t. He had just picked a syllabus that he thought was representative of the ‘realist’ mode of writing from the relevant time period, and. . .all those books happened to be about money and debt. Now, granted, you could find a lot of things that those books all commented on — sex or family or man’s role in the universe — because that’s the kind of thing literature is about. Still, the very specific focus on personal economics in all those books helped to cement in my head that “realism” equates with “books where it matters how people pay for stuff.” That might be why it bothers me so much that I can’t figure out how Joey Berglund can afford to go to college.

Let me back up for a second: Joey Berglund is one of the main characters of Freedom, a novel by Jonathan Franzen that was published this year, to both critical acclaim and popular success. I have to admit: I’ve been a little obsessed with this novel, or the idea of this novel, since I first heard that Franzen was going to be on the cover of Time magazine. He was the first living writer for this to happen to for a decade (possibly even dating back to when Time magazine was some kind of big deal?) It’s possible (and it’s been pointed out to me) that I’m giving this whole story too much attention, when it would be easy enough to ignore it, as many sensible people will. But (1) a lot of people whose opinions I respect started saying this was a really good book, and (2) I’m actually, in principle, afraid I don’t pay enough attention to contemporary realistic fiction.

As I found myself musing a lot, when working on my NaNoWriMo project, I have a hard time figuring out how to tell interesting stories that don’t involve dragons or vampires. (My NaNo project, for instance, has no dragons or vampires; it does have rock bands and politics, two things that Freedom also has). I’m never going to give up the books that have dragons and vampires (or murderers or spies or space pirates or any of the things that I love because they are awesome and fun and scary), but I certainly think that writers ought to be able to tell good stories where nobody gets murdered, or brought back from the grave. The stuff that my grad school seminar would have called “realism” and today for some reason gets lumped in literary fiction.

Now, what publishers call “literary fiction” isn’t completely synonymous with “realism”. Justin Cronin’s The Passage,” for instance, which is clearly post-apocalyptic horror, got reviewed as “literary,” maybe because Cronin had published realistic fiction before? The reviews were mainly good (including mine: I dug The Passage a lot). I couldn’t help but notice, though, that when I was looking at those “year’s best” lists I mentioned the other day, that most of those ‘best’ lists are dominated by realism, while The Passage might get relegated to a list of The Year’s Most Transporting Books. This is a fine list, no question, and I’d happily read everything on it if it’s as good as the Cronin book. Still, it underscores the idea that an excellent post-apocalyptic vampire belongs in some sidebar category.

Meanwhile, a Best Books post on Freedom tells us, “The most terrifying thing about the book is that, in many ways, he is writing about us. About you and me and both the flaws and goodness within all of us.” Or there’s this one, which says, “Joey, Patty, Walter, and all the rest are totally relatable even though we never get to know all that much about them. . . Each tic and stutter that we are given access to allows us to fill in the blanks, often with a little bit of who we are. And that’s why this novel can be so hard to read: Through the Berglunds we learn more about ourselves than we ever do them.”

Now, does anybody want to take a wild guess at what this book that is about “all of us” is actually about? Did you say anything other than “the marital troubles of a middle-aged, liberal, upper middle class, heterosexual couple”? Of course you didn’t, and why would you? To be fair, there are other things in the book. I already mentioned politics and rock bands. You also get college sports and conservation issues and horseback riding in Patagonia. I absolutely enjoyed the book and thought it was an excellent story about all of these things. Still. If you’re ever tempted to say that a book like that is about “all of us,” even if by “all of us” you just mean “the people you assume are reading ‘best books of the year’ lists on the website of NPR or The Atlantic,” then please stop and think about what you’re saying and what you mean by “us”. Insofar as this book is a well-crafted and specific portrait of the experience of particular people who belong to a particular, privileged segment of society, I have no problem with that. When you start making silly, blinkered generalizations about the universality of Patty Berglund’s experiences when she had to figure out how to sell the family estate that had belonged to her rich grandfather, I’m going to start taking exception.

This brings me back to the subject of Joey’s tuition. Joey is an 18-year-old kid from Minnesota who decides to attend a public university in a different state, without the financial backing of his upper-middle-class parents. The public university he attends happens to be in my state, and in fact it’s the same one I attended about ten years before Joey would have. Out-of-state tuition at that school is expensive. It would be, as far as I can figure out, quite beyond the means of an average 18-year-old. The book even hints that Joey’s financial circumstances are mysterious, and I spent much of the book expecting to find out that he was a highly-successful drug dealer. (Sidenote: It says something about Joey and something about me that I think I would have liked him a lot more if this had turned out to be the case; however, it wasn’t.) In fact, the book never explains where Joey got the money. It’s hinted that he was able to take out loans in his own right by signing a statement that his parents didn’t support him. I guess there are circumstances where this might be possible, but, having known people in the last decade who were trying to pay for college without support from their parents, it’s my impression that this is very hard to do until you’re in your 20s. If you have well-off parents, the state is going to assume they support you even if they don’t. At the very least, Joey would have had to jump through some hoops. I wanted to know how it worked but the book just skims over this. The details get fudged in a way that suggests the author either didn’t do his research or didn’t like the results and hoped no one would notice.

It might seem like I’m nitpicking a tiny detail, and in a way I feel like people who watch Friends and bitch that those people could never afford that apartment. I think there’s more to it than that, though. If a book’s claim to relevance is that it’s real, that it’s about us, then I don’t think it would hurt to acknowledge, as Dickens and Balzac and Dreiser felt they had to, that a big part of the “real” lives of their readers involved having to pay for things. If nothing else, the way we pay for things says something about us. When a university treats an 18-year-old middle class kid as his parents’ dependent, whether that’s true or not, this means something. So does the reality that a college kid with no money can (or could in the early 2000’s when this book was set, anyway) get a credit card that a low-wage person probably couldn’t. I may be pulling at a small thread in a big book, but failing to acknowledge this kind of issue leaves me looking oddly at the whole exercise. Not, I’m sure, that Balzac and Dickens and Dreiser had a perfect grasp on the economics of their times, but their books at least give the impression that they were paying attention.

Having gone through this rant, I’m reminded that one of my favorite books of 2010 was Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane, which I reviewed here. This is nominally a crime novel, and I’d be the first to admit the “crime” plot is a little perfunctory. It is, however, a bitingly real look at people affected by economy, living on the brink, worried about losing jobs and homes and health insurance. Lehane reminds me that if there’s a true heir to “realism,” it might reside on the crime shelves rather than the “literary” ones. Of course, I read the review of this book in The New York Times. The critic complained that the author kept going on and on about the recession. I think that says it all.

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