The coincidence of starting to read Jonathan Franzen’s latest blockbuster Freedom immediately upon having finished a re-reading of Richard Russo’s 2007 Bridge of Sighs focused my attention on what seemed to me to be a surprising number of similarities, similarities I would have been unlikely to notice had I not read the two books in such close proximity. This is especially true, since I hadn’t even remembered having already read the Russo novel, until I was about fifty or so pages back into it. It hadn’t made much of an impression. While the novels are different in detail and scope, the similarities are interesting and worth noting.
Let me point some of them out. Both deal with a love triangle between two men and a woman. One of the men is a nice guy, but not very exciting and not very attractive to the ladies. The other is a wild guy with artistic pretensions (who does in the end become a successful artist, in one case a painter, the other a musician) who is the proverbial “chick magnet.” The woman chooses the safe guy and marries him, but always has some regrets about that choice, regrets that she deals with and conquers by the end of the novel. In both novels one of the spouses writes a lengthy autobiographical essay as a therapeutic exercise, and in both, the essay is read by the other spouse and causes a separation. The separation is resolved, although it takes longer in Freedom, when the couple recognizes the strength of their love and forgives past sins. Both novels alternate long sections from each of the character’s perspectives, although Franzen includes other characters.
I don’t point out these similarities to suggest influence. What seems to me interesting is the effect of proximity on a reader. Had I not just have finished reading Russo how different would my reading of Franzen been? Once I began noticing the similarities, I found myself obsessing over them, looking for more examples. What had I missed as a result? On the other hand, had I gained something by focusing on these similarities? Freedom is a remarkable book. It has been justly acclaimed over and over again. Bridge of Sighs is fine, but it is not Russo at his best. Still, the similarities between the two might also have a reflexive effect. The stature of Franzen’s novel lends some gravitas to Russo’s earlier use of similar material. These are novels that in some sense speak to each other when read in tandem.
While both books focus on social and political issues, they are more clearly front and center in Franzen’s book which deals overtly with environmental issues, corporate malfeasance, and overpopulation. Russo focuses on the economic blight caused by industrial flight. Franzen’s characters are directly involved in political activities. Russo’s characters suffer the effects of social change and have to overcome them. Franzen’s canvas is wider, even considering Russo’s detours to Italy in Bridge of Sighs. But in each book, the novelist creates a world in which human relationships function against a socio-political backdrop that is as important as emotional connection.
Obviously every individual’s experience of any work of art is influenced by what their experience with other works. One has to wonder however how many critical judgments that have become accepted dogma result from the kinds of proximate experiences I had with Russo and Franzen. Were I reviewing Freedom, what might I have said differently had I not had Bridge of Sighs so recently planted in my consciousness? Proximity may well lead to valuable insights; it might equally well send the reader careening down an errant path. Of course, there is no way to tell. There is no way to go back and unread Russo, and even if it were possible, who knows if it would be desirable.