Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I can’t remember the last time there was a novel that had this much buzz, this much backstory, that I was so excited to read I couldn’t wait for the paperback – wait, yes I can, 10 years ago when I first read Franzen’s last novel The CorrectionsThe Corrections ranks as one of the best novels I’ve ever read and one of the rare books I’ve read twice. Despite its pervasive darkness The Corrections remains a book I look back on with a smile because of Franzen’s brilliant writing and his ability to capture the world almost exactly as it is, making you conscious of things you somehow knew but never stopped to understand or interpret.  Tempering my expectations proved impossible, comparisons were inevitable and there were flaws right from the beginning.  That said, Freedom also reaffirmed all the things I love about Franzen’s work.  His ability to translate his own perception (seemingly always on) into  his characters is at times breathtaking and I found the book to be both intellectually satisfying and a genuine pleasure to read.

Where Don DeLillo (an often cited and confirmed influence on Franzen’s work), is obsessed with ideas and things, Franzen is consumed with ideas and people. His characters, especially in Freedom, are written from the inside out. I knew all the nooks and crannies of their inner lives but I could barely put a single image together in my mind of what they looked like past generic tags like tall, plain, blonde, etc.  Even Richard’s direct physical comparison to Libyan General Gaddafi seemed absurd and something I never fully believed. But that didn’t prevent me from feeling by the book’s end that I knew each of these people as completely as you know your own family or closest friends.

Freedom’s chapters are timed almost perfectly.  Just when you’re overwhelmed by the failures and misery of one character Franzen shifts perspective and drops you into the problems of another.  He finds a comfortable third person narrative voice that allows him to sit back and play the part of an all-knowing reporter.  It lets him to skip all over the timetable, returning to an important event to show you exactly how someone felt in that moment and what its imprint on them is today. 

How hard it is to hide on a basketball court! Patty got beaten on defense again and again, and each defeat seemed to make the next one more likely. What she was feeling became a lot more familiar to her later in life, when she made the acquaintance of serious depression, but on that February night it was a hideous novelty to feel the game swirling around her, totally out of control, and to intuit that the significance of everything that happened, every approach and retreat of the ball, every heavy thud of her feet on the floor, every new moment of trying to guard a fully focused and determined Bruin, every teammate’s hearty halftime whap on the shoulder, was her own badness and emptiness of her future and the futility of struggle.

But not all of his choices are as effective.  Patty’s autobiography is far too well written to ever be taken seriously as something her character, an intolerant and not very worldly ex-basketball star (possibly a nod to John Updike’s Rabbit?), would ever be capable of writing.  There are also times where the language can be a little too slack in trying to match that of the characters it is living inside.   

There is a danger when dealing with subject matter so familiar, so close to the every day, that a kind of “who cares?” factor can seep in. I’m not sure the characters in Freedom are as compelling as they are recognizable. Despite there being irreparable mistakes and epic failures the stakes didn’t feel as high as they did in The Corrections. Maybe these characters just aren’t as sympathetic. (Does anyone really care about Patty’s happiness after all we’ve learned about her?) But Franzen implies that her mistakes are our mistakes so in a sense he is asking us to forgive ourselves.  It can bring a shudder to your spine thinking what he’d make out of your own life if given the chance. However his ability to capture the full scope of three different families, including the most minute details of their inner-workings from conception to demise, is an incredible literary feat.  He maps these families as a way to show that this is what makes us who we are.  That all of the events and patterns and shortcomings we experienced during childhood come back to haunt us as adults.  He’s an expert at tracing those lines of early life’s pain to the mistakes we continue to make in the present even as he’s balking at them being used as excuses for bad behavior. Perhaps that is why it’s so disappointing when he wastes time with sloppy sketches of characters like Patty’s siblings, Walter’s funding source or other lesser characters that end up feeling like incomplete caricatures in comparison to the complexity he gives his principals. 

Franzen seems to relish his role as the evil puppetmaster.  The relentless, downward spiral he puts this family through knows no bounds and can at times be exhausting. Nothing better illustrated Franzen’s doomed and frustrated characters to me than two separate episodes in which male characters can not find pleasure when the woman they desire most willingly gives them a blow job. Any turn towards what looks like something good in this book can justifiably be seen as a trap and I found it difficult to read more than 70 pages at a time without beginning to feel the almost overwhelming depression that underscores every event in the book seeping into my own mind.

There is also a sense, particularly later in the book, of a suspended reality that exists only to serve the purposes of the author and his own personal soap box.  Far fetched situations written in broad strokes allow him to take easy political or moral shots at the things that bother him most. Flip flops, mass market culture and the recent Bush administration all get put on a tee for Franzen to swing at.  Even the plot twist of Walter becoming a viral sensation felt too cute, too topical (Look YouTube! Twitter! iPods!) and tied right into Franzen’s own complaints about technology.  It disrupts the subtlety and careful craftsmanship he puts into building these characters.  Several reviewers have cited the Richard character as a literary stand-in for the author and unfortunately it’s fairly easy to see why they would draw that conclusion as Richard finds himself more miserable than ever when he finds overnight success and gains small bursts of pleasure in lecturing others on its pitfalls similar to one of the most famous aspects of Franzen’s public persona. 

The book’s title, another thinly veiled jab at George W, does hint at some of the deeper truths that Franzen is able to uncover.  Charles Baxter in his essay on the book called “His Glory and His Curse” talks of, “The noble lie.”  A truth, in the mind of its creator, that is manipulated for the benefit of others and ends up doing far more damage than good.  Franzen’s characters are each victims of the eternal pull towards that which they can not have or should not want and therefore desire most.  Patty has all day, every day to do whatever she pleases yet it is this fact that makes her life so endlessly miserable.  She has lost the very things (basketball, competition) that made her Patty and when her kids grow up and leave home they take her attempt at a second act as super parent with them, leaving her hopelessly lost in a life that has no focus.  Walter can never be accused of the same things but the compromises he makes in attempting to protect the cerulean warbler as a gateway to promote the logical yet ridiculous  idea of de-population, force him further and further away from anything that could be even remotely labeled as good and destroys his own self-respect in the process. Richard works all his life to achieve some modicum of artistic success and recognition.  When he gets more of both than he asked for he begins an abstract process of self-destruction and goes back to building roof decks for people he despises.  Joey can’t help himself from constantly reframing the truth for his girlfriend turned fiancée Connie. There is always some reason they shouldn’t tell people, shouldn’t live together, shouldn’t even call each other too much. She in turn encourages him to enjoy his (you guessed it) freedom which leaves him (among other misdeeds) in South America digging through the contents of a toilet for his engagement ring.  Franzen seems to lament this new age where everything has become so easy.  Information so readily accessible, marraiges so easily dissolved, the world’s contents available for purchase, a dozen kinds of bottled water – an infinte number of choices.  It’s a valid and important point that buys his process of making it some critical leeway. 

Although at the conclusion of Freedom I did feel slightly disappointed, dwelling on the book’s flaws takes away from the overall impression I had of it being a finely crafted novel of considerable importance by a very talented writer.  Franzen has an incredible gift for capturing modern America.  His writing is fluid and efficient and when he does allow himself a literary tangent it often results in the best passages of the novel. 

Staying in hotels with Lalitha had become perhaps the hardest single part of their working relationship. In Washington, where she lived upstairs from him, she at least was on a different floor, and Patty was around to generally disturb the picture. At the Days Inn in Beckley, they fitted identical keycards into identical doors, fifteen feet from each other, and entered rooms whose identical profound drabness only a torrid illicit liaison could have overcome. Walter couldn’t avoid thinking about how alone Lalitha was in her identical room. Part of his feeling of inferiority consisted of straightforward envy – envy of her youth; envy of her innocent idealism; envy of the simplicity of her situation, as compared to the impossibility of his – and it seemed to him that her room, though outwardly identical, was the room of fullness, the room of beautiful and allowable yearning, while his was the room of emptiness and sterile prohibition. He turned on CNN for the blare of it, and watched a report on the latest carnage in Iraq while he undressed for a lonely shower.

Freedom is a novel I will read again at some point in my life and there is little doubt I will be ready to line up once again 10 years from now when his next book comes out.

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