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Jonathan Franzen, Freedom

February 2, 2011
Freedom bookcover, by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom bookcover (Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia)

Hmm … where to start? Half way through this book I was tiring. I wanted to say to Franzen “Enough already” (which, if you’ve read the book, has a certain appositeness). I also started to think of those song lines, so well-known to my generation:

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

In fact, I thought of starting this post with that quote, but decided it would be just a little too twee – but somehow it ended up in the first paragraph nonetheless.

In some ways, Jonathan Franzen‘s latest novel, Freedom – which I must be the last blogger to read – is an interesting companion piece to Peter Carey‘s Parrot Olivier in America. They are wildly different in tone, style and historical setting but both explore the foundation upon which America is based, that of freedom of the individual. America tends to parlay this word about a little too, shall I say, freely, a little too unaware at times that freedom is not a simple concept but one that needs to be modified by a few “ifs” and “buts”. It’s these “ifs” and “buts” that confront Franzen’s characters, and that are recognised in those now immortal song lines. In other words, what Franzen’s characters find is that freedom in and of itself is no great shakes. It cannot exist in a vacuum …

But first, the plot. It chronicles the relationship of nice-guy Walter and mixed-up Patty Berglund (and, along the way, their family and friends). The opening paragraph starts around the middle of the chronology, with a rather teasing statement that Walter “had made a mess of his professional life” and then tracks back a few years to the early years of Walter and Patty’s marriage, before tracking back further to their youth and courtship, and then returns to the starting point and on to their future. Through this journey, Walter and Patty, residents of the Twin Cities, grow up, get married, have children, move east, get into a range of “pickles”, and … but that would be telling so I’ll leave the plot there.

It’s a rather complicated structure that owes a lot to postmodernism with its forwards-backwards movement, stories within a story (that is, Patty’s autobiography, told third person, in two distinct parts), a certain intratextuality (such as Patty’s autobiography being read by characters in the novel), the odd font change, and shifting points-of-view. It’s not, however, postmodern in its concerns – and is instead rather earnest, which is part of its problem. I’m not saying that it needs to be postmodern – we don’t need more self-conscious irony and clever playing with the idea of fiction – but it needs something fresh and challenging in characterisation, language and/or tone to carry it right through its 560 pages. Instead, it gets bogged down in too much earnest detail about life in modern America. It’s as though Franzen had a lot of things he wanted to say – about middle-class life, parenting, education, the environment, gentrification, politics, and music – and he was darned sure he was going to say them. We get, therefore, references to 9/11, Cheney and Bush, the war in Iraq, Obama, hints about the GFC, and so on. It’s a bit like Dickens, but without the sustained satire.

That said, there are some funny set pieces, such as the interview Richard (Walter’s friend and rival, and also lately successful rock star) gives to a young fan who wants to use Richard to attract a girl. Richard likens rock music to making chiclets, to being part of not against corporate, capitalist America. And I did love the description of why Walter preferred the aggressive driving of his young assistant, Lalitha, to driving himself:

Walter had come to prefer the anxiety of being her passenger to the judgmental anger that consumed him when he was at the wheel – the seemingly inescapable sense that, of all the drivers on the road, only he was traveling at the right speed, only he … [and on it goes for a page of road-rage inducing complaints].

But, getting back to the main game, what is this “freedom” all about? Most of the characters yearn for and/or experience freedom of one sort or another – they want to live their own lives their way. This can include not working, following one’s own heart regardless of the needs of those around you, having sex with whomever whenever you please, not being responsible for others, not doing the hard yards. And most find that the end result is not a satisfying one.

Walter, whom I presume is Franzen’s main mouthpiece, says:

The reason the system can’t be overthrown in this country … is all about freedom. The reason the free market in Europe is tempered by socialism is that they’re not so hung up on personal liberties … The Europeans are all-round more rational, basically. And the conversations about rights in this country isn’t rational. It’s taking place on the level of emotion, and class resentments, which is why the right is so good at exploiting it ..

This makes sense to me … but, the thing is that there are so many references to freedom that it is hard to locate the main message. This one is political. There are also more personal messages. Here is a description of Walter’s grandfather:

(The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone to, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.)

And of Walter’s father:

He hated the blacks, the Indians, the well-educated, the hoity-toity, and especially, the federal government, and he loved his freedoms (to drink, to smoke, to hole up with his buddies in an ice-fishing hut) the more intensely for their being so modest.

We see parents giving children a “free pass” only to find those children, such as Walter’s brother Mitch, being a “free man” in the sense that he has no home, no secure job, no responsibilities. We see men, like Richard and Joey, thinking the freedom to have sex with anyone anytime will make them happy, but Joey, for example, after an amusing (to the reader!) scene in which he tries to live his fantasy, discovers who he really is:

This wasn’t the person he thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he’d been free to choose, but there was something  comforting about being an actual definite sometime …

And at this point he starts to grow up …

There is a lot to enjoy about this book, despite its bagginess. The characters do engage, flaws and all, and Franzen’s heart is, for me, in the right place. When I got to the end, I smiled and felt that Franzen had achieved something, even if it is simply to show that Freedom is a far more complicated concept than people like to think.

Jonathan Franzen
Freedom
London: Fourth Estate, 2010
562pp.
ISBN: 9780007318520

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2011 1:43 am

    While you may feel like the last blogger to read and review Freedom, you have managed to bring something new to the discussion. I like your focus on the primary theme of the novel: freedom.

    America definitely has a distinctive attachment to and understanding of “freedom”. For me, Franzen’s attempted engagement with the idea was less satisfying. The concept has been managed well in fictional form before. For instance, Age of Innocence heavily engages in the concept. Of course, freedom in Wharton’s novel deals mostly with sexual liberation, moral freedom, and freedom from social constraints. I think that may be why Franzen’s work feels so baggy where Wharton’s is a tightly constructed masterpiece. Franzen tries to stuff too much into his book which prevents him from exploring the complexity of the peculiar arrangement of the various strands inherent in the American idea of freedom.

    I quite enjoyed your original take on this otherwise well-covered book.

    • February 2, 2011 7:46 am

      Wow, Kerry, thanks … I am going to check “the traps” today (including yours) to properly read others’ views as I tend not to do that before I review myself.

      Good catch re The age of innocence … and I certainly agree that Franzen’s approach is not tight enough. It is, in many ways, a loose as well as complex concept and it’s one that more than ever needs close analysis right now.

  2. February 2, 2011 6:52 am

    You have more generosity in your soul than me.

    • February 2, 2011 7:48 am

      Or, just more wishy-washy! But, in fact, less generosity than much of my bookgroup – as most of them liked it more. As I said to said to Kerry I shall visit other blogs today – including yours – to see other perspectives.

  3. February 2, 2011 8:20 am

    I have not read Freedom yet! It’s still sitting on my bookshelf where I put it right after I bought it in the “read next” spot. Obviously it has gotten passed over a few times and the “next read” spot on my shelf means absolutely nothing. Good to know that it makes a nice companion with Parrot & Olivier since I just won a copy of it in a blog giveaway. I’ll put it on the shelf with Freedom and hopefully I’ll get to one and then the other sometime this year.

    • February 2, 2011 9:54 am

      LOL Stefanie. I know a bit about the “next read” spot. I’ve just done a little “next read” sleight of hand myself. Anyhow, I’ll be interested in what you think – it is long, and does get a bit bogged down at times but it’s worth reading, partly to be part of the conversation and partly because the characters are interesting!

  4. February 2, 2011 12:12 pm

    I can vouch for Whispering Gum’s perseverance with this novel! In fact, she chose to finish reading it rather than watch a tv show with her daughter. Now that’s commitment, right? 😉

    I’m glad it paid off for you in the end somewhat, though!

  5. February 2, 2011 2:24 pm

    I haven’t read such a detailed review of this book before, so thank you for the itneresting commentary. I know what you mean about tiring in the middle, I tried to read The Corrections last year and failed dismally because by the middle I just wasn’t engaged with the story (or lack thereof) or the characters and I just couldn’t keep going. You say some really interesting things about this book, and I especially like what you said about freedom not existing in a vacuum.

    Freedom isn’t a right or a state of being in and of itself – it has to be moderated by other rights – the right to be free from racial vilification for example.

    All the same, I won’t be reading this one because I am scarred by my disappointing attempt to read The Corrections. I am glad that you got some satisfation from it.

    • February 2, 2011 3:02 pm

      Well, I love this reply Becky … so thanks so much for engaging with the topic, even if you don’t plan to read the book! The “freedom” issue is an interesting one – we need to guard it, be vigilant about inroads being made into it, but as we clearly agree, it is not the only value we should be guarding.

  6. February 2, 2011 7:55 pm

    I enjoyed reading this book, and wrote about it favourably when I’d finished it. However, I’d give it only four stars, not five, its deficiencies being in the area of its huge amounts of padding, and its only half-successful humour. I don’t know if you read Bonfire of the Vanities but I think Tom Wolfe did a much better job on similar themes – it was also hilariously funny. Definitely NOT the Great American Novel in my view

    • February 2, 2011 10:33 pm

      Oh, good, I’ll check your review. I was trying to remember which bloggers had read it and checked a couple. I agree re the padding (as you can tell from my review) and the humour. It just quite didn’t know what it wanted to be I think. And yes, I did read Bonfire of the vanities and like you loved it. I agree, this Franzen is not the Great American Novel – there are definitely things to enjoy but it does fully cohere I think.

  7. February 3, 2011 8:23 pm

    You-re not the last blogger to read this, I have yet to read anything by Franzen, not for any reason other than there is so much to read and nothing of his has yet called to me. From what you say I think I might find this interesting if only for the way it is structured. Perhaps, then…….

    • February 3, 2011 11:00 pm

      Yes, I know, too many books, too little time. It’s certainly an interesting read though be warned that it does go on a bit!

  8. February 4, 2011 1:03 am

    It sounds flabby. Fat even.

    The concepts are interesting, but as you note freedom is such a wide ranging concept that covering all aspects in one novel just seems unfocused. That said, I’m sure it could be done, but it doesn’t sound as if Franzen’s done it (successfully, anyway).

    That quote about Europe felt very American to me, though it is I suppose an American character as written by an American author. There is no single free market model in Europe, and saying it’s tempered by socialism just shows a lack of nuance. Of course none of that may be Franzen. The character is not the author.

    Eh. I’d be more likely to read this if a good editor pared back another 100 pages or so from it. Good review though WG. I’m enthusiastic about your piece even if not about the novel.

    • February 4, 2011 6:01 am

      Why thanks Max …

      100 or so pages off this book would, I think, make the world of difference. There’s a whole story which I think, really, could be pared away to almost nothing.

      Re the quote about Europe. It is American I think and probably is Franzen given the character who says it – but is also, at least to my mind, a useful enough generalisation in the context to provide a contrast. BUT this is part of my whole bother with the book, the lack of focusing in. He could say that he’s showing what a wide ranging concept it is but I’m not sure he makes that point clear enough either. Too many characters saying or representing too many things about Freedom.

      Another issue in the book that I didn’t raise – and perhaps I should have – is that it’s a bit of a riff on Trollope and “how are we to live”. In fact “how to live” is repeated a few times in the book (mostly by Walter). So, there are interesting things to this book but oh boy it did go on …

      • February 4, 2011 6:56 am

        I constantly find things I should have raised. One can only write so much though. Any novel that’s even halfway good will probably have more in it than one sane blog post could cover.

        Too many [characters/plots/ideas seems the problem generally with his book, just too much even for a book of its length.

        • February 4, 2011 8:43 am

          You are right of course re good(ish) novels … all we can do is pick a point or two and explore that. It doesn’t even have to be the most important one, but the one that is of particular interest to you … but you still sometimes wonder later whether you could have squeezed in one more.

  9. February 5, 2011 7:09 am

    That earnestness killed The Corrections for me; and I haven’t read Freedom, and I’m not going to read Freedom, because six hundred pages more of this man slowly, conscientiously, earnestly Being A Great Author is something I’m not going to touch with a thousand barge poles. His humour is excruciating. Painstakingly, solemnly, crabbed and devout, he goes to the file drawer marked Funny Sentences: Construction Of and looks up a diagram. Carefully he imitates it. Why? Not because he is funny, or because he really feels funny at that moment, but because he’s seen other authors Be Funny and he has the notion that this is something he should include, in the same way he should include Something Feminist and a reminder that Racism is Bad.

    • February 5, 2011 1:44 pm

      Oh, you do have a way with words, DKS. Must say I haven’t read much of what Franzen himself has said (ie no interviews etc) so am not sure whether he is earnestly being the Great American Novelist or whether that tag is being thrust upon him (and maybe pulling him down). I did find some humour in the book … but uneven, and the tone overall felt uneven or, rather, not well controlled (because variety in tone is usually good).

      As I implied, the language just didn’t excite me enough …

      • February 5, 2011 3:11 pm

        I don’t have a wide acquaintance with his essays, interviews, and so on, but the little I’ve heard has left me with a picture of an awkward man who, thanks to a love of classic narrative-driven novels, feels that, as an author, he has a duty to address Pressing Issues of Today for the benefit of a mainstream audience — but he also suspects that this readership is a perhaps a little stupid and would rather be playing with its iPod. He wants to communicate with it but how? Comedy? Realistic dialogue? Descriptions of familiar items? A quandry!

        The burden of Being A Great Author is not something the Pulitzer foisted on him. It’s an integrated part of his tone. It was present in The Corrections, before he won. He writes like a man who has never quite got over the fact that it’s no longer 1850, and the readership that elevated a George Eliot or a Victor Hugo or a Tolstoy no longer exists. That’s the audience he wants, and that’s the audience he’s writing for, an audience that died in the 1890s. It was a nasty mistake of fate that forced him to do it in the language of a modern American.

        • February 6, 2011 7:51 pm

          Thanks for elaborating DKS … I certainly think there is a “Dickensian” element/wish in his work but I agree that it didn’t quite work here.

  10. February 7, 2011 7:54 am

    I’ve a feeling that reading your blog is much more enjoyable than reading Franzen. As I’d quit Corrections not too far into the book (ok, maybe bias on my part… but time is limited), I have not even attempted Freedom. But I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your excellent review of the book. Your last paragraph is brilliant! Thank you for reading it for us. 😉

    • February 7, 2011 7:55 pm

      Thanks Arti — at least, my blog was much quicker to read. I’m glad to have been of service!

  11. February 7, 2011 7:58 am

    Typo on italicizing ‘Franzen’… guess his name isn’t a literary work yet. 😉

  12. February 10, 2011 9:59 pm

    Personally I really enjoyed Freedom. It was a novel I couldn’t put down. Having recently also read Parrot and Olivier in America it’s interesting to see you draw a comparison between them. I hadn’t thought of it myself, but looking back the links are there – Carey drawing the comparison between the birth of American freedom and the contrast with “old” Europe, and Franzen bringing it to the present and trying to show where that freedom can lead.

    • February 10, 2011 10:48 pm

      Welcome, Graham and thanks for commenting. Many in my reading group felt like you, and couldn’t put it down. I felt like that for parts but other parts got a little tedious. Overall though I thought it was an interesting novel with some good characters. It’s funny how we make connections between books at times – often a bit to do with when we read books (and of course our own particular perspectives) – but I’m glad you see what I was getting at.

      Oh, and I shall pop by your blog soon … to see what you are reading.

  13. Michelle permalink
    March 4, 2011 5:24 pm

    This is a really excellent review, and despite my rantish-style review of Freedom, I do agree with much of what you’ve said. I think Franzen is in earnest, which is to his credit, and he does highlight much of what is frustrating about American society. I suepect that Freedom suffers not only from its own flaws, but from the ridiculous hype the book received, which then, of course, balloons those flaws. But I still couldn’t stand the facile psychology of the book overall. It was all too easy and that drove me nuts. Humanity and society (even American society, despite what TV and other mass culture outlets would have us believe) is just more complicated and messy than Franzen’s universe. And the book was long enough and Franzen is a good enough writer to have done better.

    p.s. very glad to have found your blog, I’ll be following along with interest!

    • March 4, 2011 5:40 pm

      Why thanks Michelle. And me you. Your rant was well done and did hone in on the critical issues very succinctly! I think you have a point re the pop psychology too though I guess I got caught up in other issues and didn’t pay a lot of attention to that one!

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