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.