Reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (A review, of a kind by John Purcell)

I once read a book review written by Theodore Dreiser . The book he was reviewing was Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. What I recall of that review, read many years ago, is that Dreiser had come clean, saying something like – it took Maugham 500 odd pages to convey all that is conveyed in the novel, and so much is, what hope have I of giving you an impression of such a novel in a short review? All I should say here is – read it. For it is only by others reading it that my review will be written.

When I sat down to write a review of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen I read through the notes I had taken while reading and found no recognisable pattern in them. If I were to write a review I would have to draw together these disparate reactions and manhandle them into one congenial whole. I found I couldn’t do this.

In the midst of my frustration, I remembered Dreiser’s approach. I was very tempted to follow his example to the letter, but I changed my mind. Readers today have umpteen million novels to chose from (and more every minute). In such bountiful times we all need help to decide what next to read. So, for what they’re worth, here are my notes. They are my thoughts whilst reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and, depending on your reading of them, they will either extinguish your desire to read the book, or increase your desire. I kinda a hope it’s the latter.

Update: A much cheaper edition of Freedom has been released – you can buy it here – if you want…

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Franzen opens Freedom with a teaser, he says, these ordinary people, Patti and Walter Berglund, living ordinary lives, are not what they seem. Then he draws a pen portrait of Walter and Patti as seen through the eyes of their neighbours. Yep, we readily agree, these are ordinary people. And yet lurking in the back of our minds is – he said all is not what it seems. And we turn the page.

~

The ability of literature to lead you back to your own experiences, to enable you to make sense of them, is one of its greatest strengths

~

Franzen has genius, I have no doubts. But he seems to think it is not quite right to acknowledge its existence in himself or in others. He knows it exists. He can’t help but know it and this is what makes him clumsy, when he might be graceful, as he attempts to portray a world devoid of genius and beauty. (Is it so unacceptable for an artist to glide blithely above the suburban world  hoping for better things?)

~

This is a book which will divide opinion, which makes it perfect for book groups. It’s not a beautiful book but it is thought provoking (and they’re thoughts that deserve to be provoked, too).

~

Patti and Walter are not unique to our age. Nothing people, ordinary people are humanity. Make no mistake. And this is not a discovery. Every age has been moved to the next on the back of nothing more than blind obedience to natural instincts. There is no orchestration other than need. And yet how many novelists will try to show us that our present ordinariness is more ordinary than the ordinariness of previous ages?

~

The whitewashed walls of human existence are and have always been sparsely decorated. Millions come and go without leaving even the slightest discernable trace. (Genius is rare, and thus it is surprising. The extraordinary is a worthy subject for art because it doesn’t happen in our lives. It must always be reported to us. In this the artist renders us a service.)

~

Franzen takes the more difficult course, he wants to draw our attention to the ordinary in life. He has a point to make, a scheme, and requires more than everyday ordinariness from his characters, he requires a particular ordinariness, suited to his needs. And this is a mistake. Manufacture the extraordinary, by all means, but leave off manufacturing the ordinary. We, the ordinary, will spot the deficiencies of your art.

~

Creating ‘ordinary’ is dishonest, reporting it, however, can be sublime.

~

If you have read The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead, and you know how much Franzen admires that novel (see here), you cannot help but keep it in the back of your mind as you read Freedom. Is it unfair to do so? They are books written in different eras, by authors of different gender, from different countries. But there are similarities. The family is central to both novels; as are questions of identity within that family. Why not compare? The Man Who Loved Children is an astonishing work of art, true but might not Franzen have hoped to reach such summits with his own novel? What was stopping him? He’s certainly no slouch. Was Christina Stead more fortunate than Franzen? Were the times she lived in more interesting, richer? Did she have unfair advantages over Franzen? You would have to answer no to all of these questions. Her life was more difficult, her circumstances more adverse, and thus, her artistic success more surprising. Christina Stead’s subjects are no less ordinary than Franzen’s and yet they live and breathe. Christina Stead’s novels create urban spaces we can inhabit. People with whom we can argue, play, cry and then upbraid. They smell, these people, have personal ticks and awkward habits. The edges of sofas bear the marks of use, the third step creaks. There is a hair growing alone, wiry and unnoticed from so and so’s neck. Did Franzen’s courage fail him? Or did he decide that the message was more important than the vessel?

~

The questions Franzen’s novel raises can be found in each and every newspaper – they are the playthings of the opinion pages.

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The greatest of the American authors had a rapport with the past. They acknowledged the debt from Europe, entered into and then continued a conversation begun before history, whether overtly, like Edith Wharton, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway or slyly as with Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser. More modern writers like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow had direct ties to the past and their prose resonated within the great hall of human history bringing a certain gravitas to even the most puerile of their writing.

~

But modern writing seems more than willing to surrender the past to the past. There is a sense of finality at the heart of much modern writing. Extremism. All is now either known or unknowable. All grey areas have been liquidated. All doubts must be errors of thinking. And yet, of the modern writing I have read, the all-pervasive atmosphere is one of indiscriminate doubt. Such writers seem to have suffered a loss of faith in themselves, in humanity and in the value and power of art. The certainties they cherish are phantoms. The language they use is the language of expediency. They seem to say – I must get this point across, it is meaningless, I’ll admit, but still, it has to be said, ‘they’ have to read this but ‘they’ won’t if I elaborate or decorate, so the best way to say what I have to say is quickly, with as few words possible, unencumbered by humour or beauty. (‘They’ are the mass of humanity artists most fear, the university educated suburbanite whose degree taught them one thing, that all intellectual effort was a thing of the past and that their education was now over.)

~

For Love Alone and The Man Who Loved Children would not be written by a contemporary author. No one writing today would think of using so many words to express ‘so little’. Letty Fox, even, the most modern in spirit of Stead’s novels, is full of words. But more importantly, Stead’s writing is full of doubt and of certainty. To be effective, to enlighten, doubt must follow certainty, for doubt proper is the shadow of certainty. Such doubt is not sterile, it is in a constant battle with the certainties it haunts. In For Love Alone Teresa is certain of love, she loves, but doubts she’ll ever experience being loved. She never questions love, though. Love is bigger than her. She cannot dissect it. Doesn’t want to break it into parts. But she knows what it is. In Freedom there are not even these certainties. Franzen doubts his own doubts.

~

Franzen’s world is at times unbearable. There is a gloom here which doesn’t recognise that every age of man was gloomy. This alienation from the respite of shared experience creates an artificial gloom so sticky as to envelop and suffocate our interest in his story.

~

This particular ‘literary masterpiece’, this book which has been lauded in the papers and in the journals, this novel by the fellow on the cover of TIME magazine, this work which many educated readers will feel they OUGHT to read is unlike many similarly hyped novels in that it is accessible, immensely readable and fast paced. This is an OUGHT book unlike The Famished Road, or Ulysses, or Don DeLillo’s Underworld or any number of books written in the last one hundred or so years which literary critics have praised and readers have bemoaned. It is an easy read. But it would be a mistake to think it harmless. No good work of literature is harmless. What Freedom hands over with its breezy ‘popular’ style it takes away in the corrosive nature of its message.

~

Some say the contemporary scene is hard to depict and it is. Writing can become cluttered with details. And Franzen does, literally, throw details into his narrative. We can stand back and applaud how observant he has been. Sometimes, to make his point, he feels it necessary to list clever observations in an attempt to layer meaning. It doesn’t work. All of these era specific details underscoring the fact that the novel is set between this date and that, only serve to inhibit our enjoyment. We cannot sit comfortably because we have been badgered into playing ‘spot the anachronism’.

~

And then there is that peculiarly American habit of knowing the details of any situation, being able to list the components, the temperature, the life cycle of a situation without ever knowing what the fuck is going on. The Mr Jones Syndrome.

~

The America which Franzen has to work with is overrun by answers. It began with the craze for self-analysis. Tiring of questions they took to answers. Affirmations. America no longer doubts or questions. It answers – verbosely, dully and constantly. Americans answer answers with more answers. Whatever the questions were they have long forgotten. Questions don’t pay, answers do. But this habit of affirmation has left America entirely inhibited.

~

Freedom, at times, feels like an overlong episode of Dr Phil. I was reminded of I Know This Much  Is True by Wally Lamb. The word which kept coming to mind was earnest. It is so damned earnest. This is a far cry from Henry Miller. A million miles from Miller. This is an America of noise, of words and well-meaning interference. An Air-Conditioned Nightmare.

~

New title: The Tragedy of Being Earnest.

~

Why do we need to examine the family who share our pew? The ordinary was extraordinary and worthy for fiction only so long as it wasn’t ordinarily the subject of fiction. The art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries glorified the commonplace because it had never been done. It was the transition from literature to journalism.

~

Dime-a-dozen novelists make good use of the omnipotent narrator, they pull the strings, presume to know all of the angles and direct and manoeuvre the action and players. But they are like the Wizard of OZ who, even after the curtain has been pulled aside, continues to pull his levers and press his buttons and hum to himself sure in the permanence of his own divinity. And we who read such novels, see his string pulling and don’t give a damn. Franzen can’t decide if he is dime-a-dozen or something more. At times he seems more fascinated by the curtain between him and the reader than the story he is telling.

~

Fielding and Thackeray own up to their meddling. They stop a narrative mid-flow. They say, it is indecent for me to spin a fictional web so fine as to deceive even its victims, so fine as to entrap without alerting the reader to the great lie that is the web. Franzen does the same thing but unconsciously. He interrupts the flow so that his writing is not mistaken for ordinary fiction. He must draw our attention to the artifice of his design. But it backfires. Woken from the fictional dream we discover that what we have been enjoying is writing indistinguishable from writing in any pulp fiction novel.

~

There is a terrible moment where Franzen describes the profound effect of War and Peace upon one of the central characters, Patti. Was this intentional? Did Franzen mean to draw from a reader of War and Peace the admission that Freedom is not a profoundly affecting book?

~

The America of much modern fiction, the America in the background of the action, is kept in the plastic it came in and reused time and time again, without fear of wear and tear. It is essentially the America of Ayn Rand, without the goose stepping or the America of pornographic writing, a letter to Penthouse, without the sex. Writers who make use of the standard backdrop seem all to have agreed that there is nothing more to America than billboards and flourescent lights; gangster poverty and white picket wealth; bored, sexually frustrated housewives, precocious children and shattered men.

~

Our Age: Because we assume we know everything there is to know about human life – all fiction must be disappointing – there can be no more real heroes, just weak-minded actors dressed in tights and a cape.

~

Reaction to the character – Richard Katz:  America just can’t do cool. They can export it, package it, drink it, fuck it, but they can’t just ‘do it’. They always, always have to look in the mirror to see if they really are cool and then, poof!, cool is gone.

~

When an artist targets the age he lives in he inevitably faces the great challenge of making the criticism, and its message or lesson, hit the mark, the reader. A reader of a satire or a social critique will naturally find himself a seat directly behind the writer. From the safety of this select vantage point the reader can smile wisely at the folly of those being portrayed. In Vanity Fair there is a point, different for every reader, when Thackeray turns bodily and his satirical gaze falls directly upon the unsuspecting reader. Franzen does this, too, though his novel is more sullen.

~

Read it now. This book is of its time. Future generations will not have as good an understanding of the Bush years. Is it for all time? I cannot tell. Will Patti and Walter rise above the politics of their age and imprint themselves on a generation ignorant of our concerns? Will the Bush years become an example of evil or of good? Or will the Bush years be almost entirely forgotten – with only the tops of the twin towers peeking through the mists of time?

~

The style  of Freedom is fluid, it apes that of a good talker, but Franzen, himself, isn’t loquacious, he is measured. So Freedom sometimes runs on and on, not like a bore straining for details, for that fellows name… you know the man , tallish, bald, wore brownish trousers to Gregory’s funeral…  but like a child who has just seen the best movie ever and wants to tell you the whole story without taking a breath.  Thus the plot of Freedom unfolds but with none of the impact of, say,  Henry Miller, who wrote as he spoke, well. (Miller is not really a writer but a non-stop talker to whom someone has given a typewriter, said Gerald Brenan)

This light, fast paced, conversational mode of writing is very much in vogue. Why? Is it the myth of Jack Keroauc writing On The Road on one long ream of paper? Or our word-processors offering us one infinite page? Is it ease? From the latest writer to have written a Vampire trilogy, to Don DeLillo’s latest novella, Point Omega (which I actually finished), to Ian McEwan’s Solar (which I did not) everyone seems to have this problem with running on and on with ever-increasing speed. Could it be that the problem is caused by gravity – a computer screen in vertical while a piece of paper is horizontal? The words in these books do seem to tumble down the pages. And our eyes follow them, catching meaning here and there, often processing the message after the fact. (It’s all happened so quickly! I’m sure the bank robber was wearing blue. No, he was definitely wearing red. ) By which time, we don’t really give a damn who shot who, we just want to be able to say we finished it.

~

Franzen draws our minds again and again to the foolhardy, though cherished, belief in the rightness of our own personal point of view. Sometimes it is done overtly – as in a scene where Walter compares his driving technique to that of his co-worker – sometimes it just occurs to us when we are switched from the point of view of one character to another. He seems to want to remind us that village minds are poorly adapted for life in the optimistically named ‘global village’. I read from this a warning – Acknowledge our incapacity to deal with issues on a global scale or perish. The issue of over-population becomes more and more important as the novel progresses.

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My emotional involvement surprised me when it announced itself more than halfway through the novel. I felt the guilt of a scientist who has fallen for the subject of his study. Compromised.

~

Anybody who has ever written anything more complicated than a shopping list will appreciate the skill with which Franzen has interwoven the big issues of the last thirty years into the body of his narrative. This is not Forrest Gump, by any means, Patti and Walter were not staying in the Watergate, they were not Monica Lewinsky’s dry cleaners, they are not in the twin towers on 9/11, they do not meet with Bush and Cheney to discuss staging a land war in Iraq, they do not lose their home in the GFC but the effect of all of these larger events can be felt in the narrative. Sometimes rather subtly.

~

The foolish lead and the wise follow mumbling heretical objections and satirical asides.

~

Themes:

Displacement. Students crisscrossing the USA. Meeting and falling in love with people from other towns, other states. Homeless.

Overpopulation. Climate change. Environmentalism. Iraq. Corporate guilt.

Depression. Gender. Sexual roles. The role of sex in a relationship, in identity. Personal versus social responsibilities. Unhappiness. Freedom, its pros and its cons. The freedom to be ignorant.

~

I closed the book after reading the last page and experienced the same dark regrets I feel after saying goodnight to and closing the door behind a friend who has spent the evening with me discussing and attempting to solve the big questions of politics, art, philosophy, etc – the two of us moving ideas around like they were pieces on a chess board. After the high, feeling like I was part of something, comes the low, realising it was all just so much wasted time.

~

All notable contemporary novels must one day be, if not read from cover to cover, at least examined. I’m thinking of Byatt’s Possession, Roy’s The God of Small Things, Proulx’s The Shipping News, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and even Franzen’s own, The Corrections. We can add, Freedom, to that list. As readers we should attempt to read the relatively few pages which at least try to reach for something excellent. (Whilst keeping in mind, of course, our first duty, which is to read those books which have attained excellence.)

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Well, that was a lot of words, wasn’t it? I’m done now. If you got this far, you deserve a cigar.

This book is perfect for any kind of book club, discussion group etc. It doesn’t take long to read and it covers so many of the important issues of our time – from depression to terrorism, from social responsibility to inequalities of wealth. This is not just a novel about America for Americans, it’s a novel for any suburbanite whether in Iceland, Chile or Australia.

Click here to buy a copy of Freedom


6 Responses

  1. Wow, probably the most fullsome review I’ve read yet! Sadly, I’m still torn on Freedom (http://tinyurl.com/6yzvwdc), but looking around I’m certainly seeing a full spectrum of opinion. Clearly Freedom divides.

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  2. [...] all about the books. White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Possession by A.S. Byatt and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen keep me hoping that, if I work very very hard for the rest of my life, I might one day write a [...]

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  3. [...] SACRIFICE : A Vampire Academy Novel by Richelle MeadAuthor Interviews and Advice for WritersReading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (A review, of a kind)Halo by [...]

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  4. [...] Booktopia blog gives a wonderfully rambling review (or rather critique) of Franzen’s Freedom, and muses on the surprising ambivalence that can [...]

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  5. PS. Possession, yes; The Corrections, definitely; The Shipping News, if you insist- but can we examine Gilead instead of Housekeeping? Housekeeping is just the overture. Gilead is the opera, the ballet, the whole box and dice.

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  6. “The ability of literature to lead you back to your own experiences, to enable you to make sense of them, is one of its greatest strengths.”

    *Lies back in a position of gratified recline, smoking a cigar.*

    Well, that was quite something. Thank you! Fabulous, absorbing stuff, and I am even more intrigued by the novel now (and even more anxious for your esteemed company to, in fact, deliver it). Your last line, before the bold, made me laugh- but I love that you were compromised by this book “of its time” too. Sometimes, maybe, that’s all a book needs to be. I can’t wait to read this one.

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