It seems a little pointless writing about this massively hyped novel Freedom, the follow up to Franzen’s 2001 block-buster, The Corrections. After all, every English language newspaper on the planet seems to have published a review of it, and the number of blog posts about it surely exceed those for any other book.
However, for my own purposes at least I’m going to provide a few thoughts on Freedom, not least because it took a couple of weeks out of my reading life this winter and it seems a shame to omit it from this blog solely because I’m unlikely to find anything original to say about it.
Firstly, let me say that Freedom is a pretty good read, if rather overlong. Its a compelling family drama which manages to bring out all the issues that are concerning America at this point in time. Its characters are personifications of “types” of modern Americans and they confront the issues which concern America today. And let’s not forget that this is Franzen’s concern – to produce what you might call “state of the nation” fiction – which exemplifies the power of the novel to bring out the underlying meaning of events. As I read it, I was even reminded of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities which took a similar approach to the rapacious greed of the financial world of the 1980s – however, Franzen is much more serious that Tom Wolfe, who manages to keep his readers racing from page to page: with Franzen its sometimes a bit of an effort, due partly I think to lack of editing.
Freedom is a kind of War and Peace (Franzen tells us so much in the story) – a novel about love, loss, friendship, and commitment to ideals that spans decades. It focuses on the story of Patty and Walter Berglund, their children and most importantly, Walter’s lifelong friend, tobacco-chewing Richard Katz. Katz is an interesting character – a partly successful rock singer with a great deal of charisma and talent, yet odious in many respects due to his excessive self-regard. Walter is more ponderous and dull, perhaps “worthy” is the right description, for he always wants to do the right thing, ending up with a career in environmental protection but having a fanatical and unfashionable belief in population control. Patty is the “hockey Mom” type who has given up her career to stay at home – needless to say, this turns out to be one big error on her part.
The book is a sort of high-class soap opera in the way that one family drama leads to another and you want to find out what happens next. Like soap operas you also know that certain romantic pairings are going to be inevitable (and rather disappointingly, the old cliché of wife and husband’s best friend features heavily).
The book is complex and goes of at tangents throughout its course. However, its rather beautifully written and despite these sideways lurches, its impossible not to be drawn into the narrative. My one criticism is that Franzen’s voice changes little. There is a lengthy section where Patty launches off into her autobiography but the tone and style of writing is rather too much like the rest of the book which is written in the third person. With the switch to Patty’s “autobiography suggested by a therapist”, my interest waned rapidly. Patty’s stilted use of the third person, often calling herself “the autobiographer”, jarred on me, together with her unlikely ability to reproduce the exact words of conversations at which she was not present.
This is a book for liberal-minded baby-boomers and its possible that younger people would fail to understand some of the personal conflicts the characters go through. Many reviwers have questioned whether Freedom is the Great American Novel of the 2010s. I would call it good, but not great. It is for example not as good in my view as Richard Ford’s novel, The Lay of the Land which seems to have more grown-up characters with far richer inner lives than Franzen’s rather stereotypical characters.
No-one could doubt Franzen’s political correctness and British readers may appreciate his outlook on modern life in general and American foreign policy in particular. In a video interview with Sarfraz Manzoor, Franzen discusses freedom in all its forms and seems to suggest that our freedom is, or should be constrained by responsibility others. Loyalty to friends means work. And while this applies in personal life, it is also a principle which nations should follow also. Franzen seems to be ashamed of the actions of the USA over the last ten years and does not shrink from voicing his disappointment -
The degree to which we are almost a rogue state, and causing enormous problems around the world in our attempts to preserve our freedom to drive SUVs or whatever – it does make one wonder what is in out national character to make us such a problem state.
Frazen feels that the USA almost fetishises freedom and pursues it to a degree that is harmful to other nations. He identifies the Democratic Party as the “adult party” who are tasked with making an unworkable system work by battling the childish and unrelenting anger of the Right.
As has been well-reported elsewhere, the UK edition of the book has a few minor typing errors. However, I read the offending version and hardly noticed them – and wasn’t the pulping of thousands of copies a contribution to the waste of resources which Franzen lambasts so consistently in the story?
Freedom is a good read and I’d recommend, with the proviso that it IS rather long and you’re going to have to have a good capacity for endurance to get the best from it.
Author: Jonathan Franzen
Publication: Harper Collins (23 September 2010), Hardback, 570 pages
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