Freedom ~ Jonathan Franzen

Back in late-August, early-September I read quite a few novels and had planned a string of reviews. One of those books was Jonathan Franzen’s recent release Freedom. I wanted to offer insight for the novel and, perhaps, for Franzen as well. Then, as I am sure much of the Western World is aware, Oprah announced her newest book club selection: Freedom.

What the hell? Between the global excitement over a new Franzen novel and the Oprah endorsement, what could I possibly add or offer that hasn’t already been said or written? Of course I expected the book to be popular and garner much media attention. Franzen, after all, has been elevated to the status of Great American Novelist thanks to The Corrections but, during the interim between finishing Freedom and the brouhaha that has ensued surrounding both Franzen and his newest novel, I have found each passing day bringing continual and escalating Franzen coverage – interviews; reviews; readings; book lists; blog ponderings; the great eye-glasses theft of 2010; the great eye-glasses recovery of 2010; Franzen-penned revelations. It is a whole lot of Franzen to absorb. I have contemplated writing the author, sharing my suggestion of an all-Franzen, all the time 24hr cable channel to, you know, take absolute and full advantage of the Franzen-crazy gravy-train. Never mind those buckets of cash. Train-cars filled with cash is so much…more. Why not? (She asks, not just a little bit sarcastically.)

So, Freedom, read it, or don’t. You probably will eventually because it is ubiquitous. Do I recommend it? Sure. It is a not bad book. I liked it better than The Corrections but I still find I am more a fan of Franzen, the person, than Franzen, the writer. His prose, to me, feels laboured; as though it has been ploddingly struggled over. It has been nine years since The Corrections was released, so maybe I am not too far off? There is, also, a certain fluidity absent from Franzen’s writing. Both of these contributed to my middling assessment of Freedom. I wasn’t overly invested in any of the characters and I could take time away from the book without feeling a pressing urge to return to it immediately. I found the concept for the story interesting and believable, to a point, but the whole of the novel wasn’t the treasure of a read I was hoping for. I know my opinion is not shared by many and I am not purposefully trying to sway you away from Freedom or be anti-Franzen. On the contrary (who actually says that phrase???). Franzen is a smart man and though given to truthfulness interpreted as harshness, I find him highly likable. So much so (who actually says THAT phrase??) I really, really wanted to love Freedom. I didn’t love it, sadly. But maybe you will? It’s hard to be one person flying the homemade “It’s a’ight.” sign, in a sea of “It’s the novel of the century!!” neon. Ah, well. I still like the dude, even if I don’t love his book.

Excerpt from the book jacket:

Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul—the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter’s dreams. Together with Walter—environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man—she was doing her small part to build a better world.

But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz—outré rocker and Walter’s college best friend and rival—still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become “a very different kind of neighbor,” an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street’s attentive eyes?

In his first novel since The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen has given us an epic of contemporary love and marriage. Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom’s characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time.

I will end with a quote from Jonathan Jones, of The Guardian: “Freedom [is] the novel of the century. A formidable and harrowing work, Jonathan Franzen’s new book is on a different plane from other contemporary fiction.”

Maybe you can now see my problem. With affirmations like that, it’s hard not to feel a little let down.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

Today, Kathleen Winter earned a literary trifecta, securing spots on all three major Canadian fiction prize shortlists. Winter was announced as a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Literature this morning. Winter’s novel Annabel is also up for The Giller Prize and The Writer’s Trust Award. Winter’s book, her debut novel, is the only one contending for all three awards this year; and it is a stunningly beautiful book.

From the jacket description:

In 1968, into the beautiful, spare environment of remote coastal Labrador, a mysterious child is born: a baby who appears to be neither fully boy nor girl, but both at once. Only three people are privy to the secret — the baby’s parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and a trusted neighbour, Thomasina. Together the adults make a difficult decision: to raise the child as a boy named Wayne. But as Wayne grows to adulthood within the hyper-masculine hunting culture of his father, his shadow-self — a girl he thinks of as Annabel — is never entirely extinguished, and indeed is secretly nurtured by the women in his life.

Haunting, sweeping in scope, and stylistically reminiscent of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, Annabel is a compelling debut novel about one person’s struggle to discover the truth in a culture that shuns contradiction.”

Annabel offers some hard themes for readers. It is the story of an intersex child born in a remote coastal Labrador village in 1968. Primarily, I feel, Winter has written an homage to self-determination and self-preservation. An intersex child is born with atypical reproductive anatomy – both male and female anatomy are present. Advocates for intersex infants argue against surgical alterations of gentalia and reproductive organs being performed in order to accommodate societal expectations of what it means to be male or female in the world. This choice forms the centre of Winter’s novel.

Jacinta Blake gives birth, in her bathtub, at home. Her closest friend, Thomasina, is assisting with the birth. Thomasina is the first one who notices the baby has both male and female genitals. She immediately begins to refer to the child as Annabel, in tribute to her own daughter who has recently died. Jacinta’s husband, Treadway, feels strongly the child should be raised male while Jacinta (and Thomasina) feel love for the daughter, Annabel. The infant, “Wayne”, receives surgery to make his body appear more fully male. He is also started on a regiment of hormones to keep his body more male than female. All of this is kept from Wayne while he is growing up but he is always aware of not feeling whole as he is. Thomasina, however, addresses the child as Annabel, when they are together privately.

In an interview for House of Anansi Press, Kathleen Winter was asked, “What do you hope readers will take away from their experience with Wayne and his shadow-self, Annabel?”

“I’d like readers to see Wayne/Annabel the way they see themselves, and look at the “other” gender within themselves. I feel point of view is everything, in life and in literature, and I hope the book treats the points of view held by its divergent characters with equal respect. In many ways, this book is, for me, about suspending judgment. When you understand why someone acts the way they do, even if the actions cause sadness or difficulty, then I think you can redirect your energy to something more fruitful than judgment. I also hope the reader will have the kind of reading experience I think books are really about: a connection with the characters and a suspension of the loneliness of being human. I hope this story, like all good stories, might give the reader a kind of relief and a joy.”

Winter set a large task for herself with Annabel. I feel she achieved perhaps more than she could have hoped for. Winter has created a wonderfully memorable story and Annabel (the character) is such a beautiful portrait of what it means to be human. Through Winter’s ability the reader feels the sadness, the loneliness but also the strength and the hope.