By Neelanjana Banerjee
The publicity extravaganza that heralded American writer Jonathan Franzen’s fourth book, Freedom, as the most important literary novel of our times was deafening in scope. Just before the book was released last September, Franzen’s picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine—the first author to do so in a decade. The label “Great American Novelist” appeared several inches below his unsmiling face. The New York Times positively reviewed the book twice in one month. And perhaps most important to Freedom’s commercial success, Oprah Winfrey picked the novel to kick off the final season of her eponymous book club.
I had avoided reading Franzen’s celebrated, family-dysfunction epic The Corrections, which was published in 2001. When I read New York Times reviewer Michiko Kautani’s line about Franzen’s ability to “throw open a big, Updikean picture window on American middle-class life,” I decided I didn’t want to read Freedom either. As an Indian American who grew up firmly ensconced in middle-class American life in the middle of America, I understood who was excluded from that specific view — pretty much anyone who wasn’t white.
But curiosity, a long airport delay and the free 30-page sample option on my Kindle got the better of me, and before I knew it, I was knee-deep in Freedom. Franzen’s satire of modern American life was proceeding just as I expected until about one-third of the way in, when I was surprised to meet Lalitha, a young Indian American woman determined to change the world for the better, and seduce her boss — the novel’s moral pillar Walter Berglund — in the process.
At first, I found it refreshing — maybe the middle-class worldview wasn’t so myopic. But after reading the whole novel, I was less upbeat. Despite her key role in the narrative, Lalitha's character offers little assurance that Indian Americans now occupy a secure place in the American imagination.
An Indian in white America
Freedom centres on the Berglunds, a seemingly perfect Minnesota family, who slowly start to fall apart under the pressures of modern American life. How class difference affects these pressures — whether it is Walter’s irrational anger at poor, uneducated people whose ignorance hurts the environment, or his son Joey’s drive to make as much money as possible at any cost — is at the core of the novel’s question about the burden of liberty. Yet despite its present-day preoccupations, the entire family seems to live in a whites-only bubble, besides the lone exception of Lalitha. Maybe more significantly, they don’t even seem to think or talk about race, which stands out in a novel where the characters often go off on political diatribes about issues like over-population or the MP3 revolution.
Lalitha, a key interloper in engineering the fall of the Berglund family, becomes Walter’s admiring assistant after he leaves his eco-conservancy job in Minnesota and moves to Washington D.C. to work for a private, environmental trust. While Walter negotiates the moral conundrum of wreaking major environmental damage through mountaintop removal in order to create a future bird sanctuary, he also tries to fend off Lalitha’s forward advances and his own feelings for her.
“He saw the romantic imperialism of his falling for someone fresh and Asian,” Walter thinks to himself guiltily. But when, (spoiler alert), Walter and his wife’s Patty’s relationship comes to a breaking point and she moves out, it leaves Lalitha and Walter free to pursue their relationship, which is based on their common political beliefs and her undying devotion to him.
A white male fantasy
Though Walter seems to truly admire Lalitha for her environmental fervour, his thoughts of her are often filtered through her Indian-ness. Walter is no ignorant xenophobe. He’s on the other end of the spectrum, knowing and sensitive to Lalitha’s Bengali background, to her dead-end relationship with her “old-school Indian boyfriend” who is doing his post-medical school fellowship, and her conservative, electrical-engineer parents. Even Lalitha’s indoctrination into Walter’s pet cause of population control relates back to a trip to West Bengal when she was 14: “She’d been exactly the right age to be not merely saddened and horrified but disgusted by the density and suffering and squalor of human life in Calcutta.”
It’s as though Lalitha’s trans-global cache gives an ethnic figleaf to Franzen’s white American satire, allowing him to steer clear of any talk of America’s dominant minorities, namely blacks and Latinos. In the only scene in the novel when racial difference becomes an issue, Walter and Lalitha end up at a commercial steakhouse in small-town West Virginia: “He felt … glaringly urban, sitting with a girl of a different race amid the two varieties of rural West Virginians, the overweight kind and the real skinny kind.”
Later, in the bathroom, a man described as “white, thirtyish, with hard living in his face” says to Walter: “I seen what you’re doing with that nigger girl.” To which, Walter’s comically absurd reply is: “She’s Asian.”
Despite Walter’s educated, politically correct understanding of Lalitha, Franzen can’t seem to refrain from engaging in the classic “white male gaze” when looking at her. When Walter first introduces her to his lecherous best friend, she is described as “dark-skinned and complexly round and slender... A solid B-plus that could be an A-minus if she would work for extra credit.” When he’s depressed, it’s Lalitha, “who’d been born in the warmth of southern Asia,” who can bring him back from the depths. Her “subtle subcontinental accent” often turns Walter on. And then of course, there are her insatiable appetites — her penchant for straddling Walter in parked cars and chasing after him in his office on her knees — that completes this projection of the middle-aged fantasy of the exotic.
It makes sense that Franzen would include an Indian American character in Freedom. Census results show that Indians are now the second largest Asian group in America. They are also one of the ethnic groups with the highest median incomes, averaging $80,000 a year. And beautiful Indian women like Padma Lakshmi and Freida Pinto have made an undeniable impact on American pop culture.
But in Freedom, Lalitha seems more like an illusion. A pretty, brown-skinned prop created precisely to parody what a middle-class American man like Walter Bergland would need to save him from his mid-life crisis. She is his own personal Arundathi Roy, but with “more desire for him in her mouth than in [his wife’s] entire body.”
In a final blow (Spoiler Alert!) that proves how unimportant Lalitha really is in the larger scheme of things, Franzen bumps her off in a tragic car accident--thus, paving the way for the reconcilliation between Walter and Patty. In the book’s penultimate section, six years after Lalitha’s death, Walter sadly thinks about he can no longer recall the details of his lover’s face.
I know how he feels. Franzen might have placed an Indian American in the middle of the supposed “Great American Novel”, but reading Lalitha still gave me that eerie feeling of someone looking straight through me.
Neelanjana Banerjee is a writer and editor currently living in Ahmedabad, India.