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Review of Freedom

Posted on October 9, 2010

I just finished Jonathan Franzen’s much praised novel Freedom.  

As you no doubt know, Freedom has earned lavish praise, comparisons to The Great Gatsby as a novel of our times, a Time magazine cover for Franzen, an Oprah book selection, and was the novel President Obama took with him on vacation.  There’s been an interesting backlash from some women writers and the reader reviews on Amazon (which I’ve come to enjoy very much) have been very mixed, with reader reactions all over the map.  Overall, however, this has been widely recognized as an important and, in the eyes of many, a great novel.

I liked it.  A lot, even with its not insignificant flaws.  It is grounded in American post-9-11 anxiety, fear, and anger, where technology, climate change, wars, suburban sprawl, corporate rapaciousness, class, and political rancor provide a rich and always present background for the self-destruction of an American family.  Brilliantly, it is through the lens of that family drama that all those contextual notes come in and out of focus. 

Whatever the zeitgeist, it is still mostly a family drama and as such has many of the major themes you might expect: the generational tension, the sins of fathers visited upon (and replayed by) their children, ideals and dreams frustrated, love and desire, betrayal and forgiveness, the mysteries that all families are unto themselves even as they play out age old tropes.  I think there is some truth to the criticisms that Franzen’s characters are familiar types— the bored and frustrated housewife; the idealistic but dull husband; the seductive and rogue, but good-for-nothing, best friend; the rebellious teenager — but Franzen fleshes them out beyond mere caricature and his eye for detail and dialogue made them feel real to me, but the journey through their inner doors (a frequent image) revealed so much more darkness and self-destruction than good that the portrayals did not feel quite right to me.

Mirroring that skewed slant on his characters, as David Brooks pointed out in a recent column, is that Franzen’s jaundiced eye seems to see almost nothing redeeming or good in 21st Century America.  It’s a bleak place.  For example, Franzen at one point argues that liberals may advocate for poor people and argue for social/economic justice, but that they have disdain for the ATV-riding, Republican-voting, hunting and fishing and beer drinking culture of those people for whom they advocate (as at many points in the novel, there was a pang of uncomfortable truth to the notion).  Yet he seems to manifest some of that very disdain not only for his blue collar characters, but also for his suburbanites and the liberal elites that are at the heart of the book.  So in that sense, his inability or unwillingness to recognize a richer of mix of good and bad in American society resonates less closely with my sense of the world in which we live.  It feels less true.  However, if you feel similarly jaundiced about contemporary American society (which is not so hard to do these days, I must admit), you will not share my modest objection.

Those criticisms aside, I was drawn in by the characters, often fascinated and quite often sympathetic to them , even if I mostly did not like them very much.  Maybe that is the point.  I know people like the characters in Freedom, but mostly try to not have them in my life.  But don’t take that as a righteous statement, for no reader in his or her fifties or sixties has escaped the drama and doubts and failures that inform the Berglund’s family journey.  I am grateful that we have known them with less of the dysfunctional self-destruction that the Berglunds suffer, but they are not unfamiliar either for us or within our circle of friends and family and neighbors.  In that sense, however off key the novel can feel, it doesn’t feel untrue.  The difference, as touched as I was by the end, is that this was not one of those novels for which I grieve its ending. 

I don’t get those critics who fault Franzen’s writing style.  I think he is in the same league with my beloved Ian McEwan and shares the latter’s ability to deftly flesh out a scene or a character in one or two beautifully written sentences.  His language is not nearly as taut as McEwan’s, but I more than once found myself reading a passage aloud to Pat.  Not many writers compel me to do so. 

Many have compared Freedom to Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, a very fair comparison.  It also reminded me of McEwan’s Saturday, a smaller, tighter book (Franzen’s somewhat baggy plot does lose its way from time to time — a little tightness would have served well) that nevertheless oozes its post 9-11 anxiety through the drama of one similarly well off and respectable family.  It is a very, very worthwhile read.

SPOILER ALERT — READ NO MORE IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE NOVEL

Not everyone loves the ending, but I found its theme of fragile forgiveness, if not really redemption, powerful and satisfying.  Lalitha’s death seemed a convenient and quick way to tie up that plot line and set the stage for Walter’s and Patty’s eventual reconciliation and walked the line of cheesiness, but I can forgive that bit of expediency.  Returning to the ending, somewhere along the way I’ve come to see the ability to forgive — both others and for one’s own failures and mistakes — as one of the keys to finding peace in this life.  When Walter and Patty embrace at the lake house, I might have ended the novel right there.  It’s all we really needed to know.

This is a book that I hope many others will read and I’m eager for the discussions we might have about it.

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