Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

One of my problems with reading contemporary fiction is that it’s easy to be too affected by the reviews and the general reception a book is receiving – I’ll read the book, but resist buying into the praise it’s been receiving. So I wonder if my thoughts on Freedom would be different if it weren’t for the wide attention, the positive reviews in the Times, the Picoult/Weiner uproar, the Oprah selection.

Freedom is, of course, Franzen’s first novel since 2001’s The Corrections, and as such it’s not surprising that it received the amount of attention it did. The novel follows members of the middle-class Berglund family, mainly Patty and Walter Berglund and their son Joey. (Their daughter Jessica’s voice is notably absent from much of the novel.) Franzen’s characters work in and through 9/11, the Iraq War, and a growing awareness of impending environmental disaster.

I think Franzen is a skilled writer. His prose isn’t showy, but neither is it overly workmanlike; he strikes a nice balance between florid and bare writing. That said, there was something about the book that I felt was lacking. In part there was a sameness of voice throughout. Much of the novel is composed of Patty Berglund’s diary, but the diary is written in the third person and in a voice nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the novel. It’s only when she makes reference to “the autobiographer,” as in, “…which the autobiographer fears her reader won’t want to hear about but which she will mention anyway,” that I remember whose story I’m reading.

Over at the Reading Ape there is a great review of Freedom exploring, in part, this issue of the similarity of voices throughout the novel, and the trouble Franzen has writing women. I see some of the same problems with their son Joey’s voice: Joey may be about my age, but when I read him I see a little Walter Berglund, with more interest in money and politics that are farther to the right, but at heart not the voice of a 20-something college student.

Joey, is followed most heavily during his early college years. He’s so precocious as to absolve the need to write the voice of an average 20-year-old, and Franzen occasionally slips up in a way that makes me wonder if he’s capable of writing such a voice.

That said, the book is good. At heart, the characters seem trying to find what sort of person they are and how that person should be labeled, as when Joey retrieves the wedding ring he accidentally swallowed:

…when he emerged from the bathroom…he was a different person. He could see this person so clearly, it was like standing outside himself. He was the person who’d handled his own shit to get his wedding ring back. This wasn’t the person he’d thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he’d been free to choose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual definite someone, rather than a collection of contradictory potential someones.

It’s the attempt to seek that defining aspect of themselves that resides beneath Freedom‘s plot. Despite the book’s title, the characters don’t seem so much free as free to explore what they inevitably are. Patty and Walter’s relationship has an air of not-quite-rightness, but although they and others sometimes realize this imperfect fit, it seems impossible that they should not be together. Their relationship, as so many other aspects of their lives, is not a choice but something that just is.

From Wikipedia

Freedom is probably one of the best books I’ve read this year, but it’s one with which I have a lot of problems. There is nothing about the story so distinctive that I’m sure I’ll remember it a year or even a month from now, but maybe that’s how it’s meant to be; Franzen writes about the fairly average couplings and breakings of a family’s life, and although he may approximate the lives of a certain class of Americans, there is nothing of real distinction in the lives of middle-class Americans who lack the freedom to escape their characters and their pasts and remake themselves as they dream of being. Rather, they are able mostly to circle the facts of their lives and what those facts say about them as people.

I wonder if my lukewarm feelings for this novel aren’t due in part to the situation in which I’m reading it. I’m a middle-class American (albeit not one who has ever earned $8000 a month, let alone on a summer job as Joey does), but given where I am now, I find it hard to worry over the lives, the minor hurts and inability to achieve full selfhood (or something) of, well, middle-class Americans. Coming home to read this book after a day spent at school and, for one period a day, helping an illiterate third-grader to write in English, overwhelmingly aware of the futility of this work and that in an ideal world I would be teaching her the Albanian alphabet rather than the English one, I found it hard to get rid of the “Who gives a shit, really?” running through my head at parts of the novel. In some ways the Berglunds’ story and their attempts to learn, as Joey does, who they really are, is similar to my own story, but faced with the thought of a girl who will grow up in a poor economy, unable to read, as a minority in a country still learning to deal with minorities despite long experience, I found it hard to care.

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6 Comments

Hi! I generally avoid fully reading reviews of Franzen’s Freedom bec I’m afraid they’ll influence me unfairly, but I was caught up in your review. I think I understand what you mean by liking the book and the writing but, ultimately, not caring about the petty lives of the characters.

Comment by fantaghiro23

Yeah…I feel a little weird about disliking a book because, like you say, I see the characters’ lives as “petty” – it seems like it gets a little close to this idea that characters should be in some way likable, which i don’t think they should. but franzen is a good writer, that’s for sure; i just finished this other book about the trivial problems of the upper-middle class and it made me realize how skilled franzen is, to get me as involved in the book as he did.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I think the book is brilliantly written. It gripped me from beginning to end despite my skepticism. Franzen’s public persona often comes across as remarkably patronizing, and his criticism of “difficult” fiction I thought was way off base. As to not sympathizing with the characters — well, that’s not necessarily something good fiction has to do. I do think he captures human complexity in all its contradictions really well. And the snideness in the book — something I came to the book expecting to be the tone of Franzen’s own voice — seems well-embedded in the voice of the narrator (who, in the first part at least, quite clearly seems to represent a local, communal point-of-view, not Franzen’s own).

As to “the Facebook” — I think you are the one with the tin ear here. Quite plainly the reference was to UVa’s own “facebook” (referred to in other schools as, for example, a “pigbook”) showing photos and other info of the incoming class. So when Joey’s students referred to their desires regarding the girls in “the facebook,” they were referring to the girls in their own freshman class, not a bunch of girls on Zuckerberg’s creation. (Where do you think Zuckerberg got the name?)

Perhaps the differences in our views is age- and experience-related. I loved the characters’ complexities and compromises. Given the self-conscious artistry Franzen is engaged in (which is quite consistent with desires of the self-conscious artistry of the “difficult” post-modern masters he seems in the outward style of his last 2 novels to be trying to distance himself from), I thought the characters were remarkably sympathetic even in the ugliness of their worst flaws.

Comment by peter

thanks for leaving such a detailed comment. i’ll go with the easiest to deal with first, the facebook bit – and here is where i think you’re right on the generational gap in reading. i had forgotten even that zuckerberg’s site was initially titled “the facebook,” referencing back to those earlier facebooks i am all but clueless on, my school not having had one. that phrasing sounds very unnatural to my ears, but as you say, i forget (or never knew) that facebook.com is drawn from these school-specific “facebooks.”

although i wrote that i found it hard to care about the frequently minor plights of franzen’s characters, i hope i didn’t imply i found that a reason to dislike the book, or that i think the “best” books are those with sympathetic characters. as you write, good fiction doesn’t have to have sympathetic characters. i think some of the best doesn’t. i thought the book was well done and one of the best i’ve read this year, and that i found it hard to reconcile the myopic complaints of middle-class American life with the more basic issues of getting education and work that people here may have wasn’t meant to imply i thought the sometimes unsympathetic nature of franzen’s characters made the book a poor one.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Like you I both liked and didn’t like this book. I liked your comment about a nice balance between florid and bare writing. I found the characters interesting but the tone (whereas you talk about the voice) bothering. I think though that he was trying to grapple with the idea of “freedom” on a bigger scale … but didn’t quite get it together partly I think because he let too many ideas get in the way.

Comment by whisperinggums

[…] Dennis Lehane – Shutter Island (10/8/10) Richard Wright – Native Son (10/5/10) Jonathan Franzen – Freedom (9/29/10) F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Beautiful & Damned (9/22/10) Nathaniel Hawthorne […]

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