As we enter these precious last weeks of summer, these long days that offer more time to read than any other season, I thought I’d finally take the time to see what all the fuss was about and read Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel, Freedom.
In a nutshell: it’s a long, sad book. It takes place mostly in the present day, which kind of adds to its head-shaking, no-way-out brand of despair. I found most of the characters to be unpleasant. Franzen seems to delight in highlighting his character’s very worst traits, spinning the American everyman into a tight cocoon of self-interested denial.
And who knows, maybe he’s right.
It certainly didn’t stop me from staying up hours past my usual bedtime for several nights running as well as ignoring my family for long stretches of long afternoons to finish the darn thing. It made me sketchily morose and sometimes downright confrontational, and yet I read on. How Franzen even wrote this book, how he stayed with these characters day after day, year after year, without looping deep into clinical depression is beyond me. (And perhaps says more about me than it does about him.)
And O.K., maybe Franzen hit a nerve with me. Maybe I identified a bit too much with the Patty character to not take her story as a cautionary tale. Patty Berglund, our heroine, is a liberal suburban mother totally dedicated to the upbringing of her two darling children, to the exclusion of almost everything else in her life. And things don’t go well for Patty. Franzen seems to have it in for Patty. Once her kids hit the teenage years, she finds herself out of her parenting depth, and plunges into bitterness, a terrible, toxic bitterness that infects the whole book.
(Yes, I worry a bit about those teenage years barreling down into the not too distant future.)
But there are all kinds of other stuff to get you down as well. The book if full of decent people making bad decisions based solely on self-interest with catastrophic global implications. Think War in Iraq; think mountain top removal mining in West Virginia; think disrupted migratory patters of birds.
Not to get too graphic (Lord knows Franzen won’t mind), but there is quite a bit of spilled semen in the book. This is really not my thing. I may be a bit of a middle-aged prude here, but it does feel like the book is full of post-adolescent males marinating in their own spent sperm. You could probably dump a bucket of the stuff out of the novel and not really lose anything.
And yet, the book felt almost Tolstoyan to me. Franzen is a great writer and he does paint a vivid picture of a time and a place, steeped in immediate cultural references that will presumably define our current society to generations of grandchildren’s grandchildren. Reading it, I felt like a 19th Century Russian reading War and Peace for the first time. The book does have that kind of hold on you. You keep reading because you cannot stop, because you feel that it ultimately might be good for you.
There is no denying that this book is a big, important novel. It pulls in so many cultural, political, economic, and environmental strands that it’s impossible not to be impressed and engrossed. But I prefer character driven stories, smaller stories. Franzen goes to great lengths at the beginning of the book to carefully develop his characters, only to have them devolve into satiric, cartoonish pawns in the second half. They become too predictable. They exist only to further the plot, and this (to me, fatally) robs them of their humanity.
Even though Franzen was the first author in something like twenty years to make the cover of Time Magazine, he did not win the Pulitzer for Freedom, though he was I believe heavily favored. The award last year went to , which I read and loved and wrote about earlier this summer. Both books are excellent. Both are well worth reading. Perhaps needless to say, I think the better book won.