What Jonathan Franzen Knows About Main Line Housewives

Why do we take everything so seriously?

Lately I can’t stop thinking that everything is meaningless. I know that sounds depressing, and it is the kind of thing I used to think when I got depressed. But I mean it now in an existential way—or I would if that didn’t sound so pretentious.

This habit of thought kicked in when I finished Freedom, the latest book by Jonathan Franzen, who has been praised for bringing literary realism back into vogue. Freedom earned Franzen comparisons to Zola and Tolstoy. But here’s the difference: War and Peace was about the Napoleonic wars. Zola’s most famous novel, Germinal, exposed the lives of rural coalminers. Freedom‘s central concern is the marriage of a tepid middle-class couple—one an undersexed ex-jock housewife, the other a weak-chinned environmentalist obsessed with population growth.

It’s a problem of scope. There’s something about contemporary American culture that seems off-kilter to me. Even though we’re all talking about Big Ideas—like population growth and the environment—we don’t seem to have an awareness of how small we are, how brief. We seem to take everything very seriously.

Case in point: I was reading a post on TechCrunch the other day about battery problems with the new iPhone 4S. The iPhone owners were out of their minds with despair over their subpar batteries, and were trying to offer each other succor (turn off your push notifications from Facebook, etc.) in the comments section. Android owners were taking great delight in Apple’s latest failure, and deriding Apple users as cultish suckers. It turned into vicious name-calling and boo-hooing. Then I spotted a comment from a guy named Jojo Appiah in Accra, Ghana. He wrote:

so you are complaining about 8hours battery life with siri and wi-fi running as well as constant use? wow..first world problems.

What a breath of fresh air. Until that comment, I was actually taking the battery problem seriously myself.

When I went to see my shrink last week, I told him I was having this problem where everything looked stupid and pointless. Not depressed-stupid-and-pointless, but legitimately-stupid-and-pointless. I told him about Freedom. I said, “Why do people fret over which restaurant to choose for a birthday dinner? Why do they argue over which paint color to use for the dining room wall? Why have I spent hours lying on the couch weeping over some sad-sack who didn’t call me? What’s all that Tess of the D’Urbevilles agony for, anyway? Why must there be so much drama?”

I asked this of my poor shrink, whose profession requires him to listen to that drama, day in and day out.

“It’s all so meaningless,” I said, with a dramatic sigh.

“That’s exactly why there’s drama,” he said. “If we infuse events with drama, we persuade ourselves that the events actually mean something.”

Maybe that’s what the women are doing on the Main Line. In “Desperate Housewives: The Reinvention of the Main Line Mom” Vicki Glembocki writes:

“It’s become a status thing,” suggests one affluent ’burbite. “Their husbands don’t want them to work, because then it looks like they don’t make enough money.” But status or no, when the kids go off to school—whether it’s first grade or freshman year at Hamilton—these ladies inevitably end up in the same spot: standing at a cocktail party sipping an appletini, and not having a thing to say when asked the ubiquitous “What do you do?”

…. “If you don’t do charity work and you’re not involved with things, what’s your meaning?” asks one woman who says she has this conversation with friends at least once a week.

It’s a solid question. It doesn’t sound like the Main Line moms have resolved it satisfactorily (they’re quite Franzenesque), but what the hell do I know? I just read and sleep when I’m not working.

Speaking of reading, I’m staying far away from contemporary fiction for a while. Instead I’m rereading The Idiot by Dostoyevsky. It’s making me forget all about this question of meaning or lack thereof. Instead it just makes me think, I’m so glad I don’t live in Russia. It sounds really cold.