Jonathan Franzen, “Freedom”

Right now on Amazon (April 17, 2011 at 7:48 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time) it’s neck and neck.

There are 255 one star reviews (ouch!) for “Freedom.” 

The five star reviews are right behind, with 230.

Overall, “Freedom” pulls down three stars, smack in the middle.

The reading public has spoken, if you think there’s merit to the folks who post on Amazon.

Up to you.

The New York Times raved about “Freedom” and The New Yorker was in awe, too.  Time Magazine propped / popped Franzen on the cover and declared:

Great American Novelist.

That was last August (2010) so “Freedom” has been digested. Absorbed.

For me, it was an occasionally enjoyable slog at times and at others, it was annoying.

Too often, I felt manipulated.  I felt like my face was being shoved into these people’s lives. Franzen allows no distance.  You live with the bodily fluids of his characters and, in one case, even more. There are feces on the page (almost literally). Franzen forces his characters to handle them and, by extension, we are right there too, our noses down in the waste and the muck.

And, at the same time, I listened on audio CD and found myself easily pulled along. There’s internal and external conflict in abundance.  Once you’re in, you have to find out what happens and that’s a tribute to Franzen’s sheer talent.

Get the picture? I’m conflicted.

There are big themes, big ideas and three-dimensional characters with a whole big range of human emotions.  If Franzen set out to capture the zeitgeist of the Modern White Middle Class American, I’d say he succeeded in a Very Big Franzen way.

But there are also moments of Big Soap Opera.  No matter all the background and build-up, you can’t overlook the cliché climactic fight between Walter and Patty.  “For God’s sake, though, Walter, it was just sex,” she asserts mid-battle.  Of course we know it was much more than “just sex” because we know every morsel of her soul by this point (page 462). We know all the self-destructive forces of all the characters because Franzen won’t let us overlook them.

He tells us everything.  There is never a moment when you wonder what these characters think.  Their thoughts scroll above the scene on the rolling bright-light marquee.

“Feeling cruelly deprived, she turned off the television.”

“Walter felt, himself, is his anger and disappointment with the world, like the gray northern woods.”

“By finally venting his anger, first to Patty and then in Whitmanville, and thereby extricating himself from his marriage and from the Trust, he’d removed two major causes of his anger.”

Writing schools tell you to “show don’t tell.” Franzen tells and tells and tells.

Franzen’s characters have emotions and feelings that have all sprouted muscles. Then, he puts them in situations where they must clean-and-lift 250.  Even in the case of hard-to-like Walter Berglund, who can’t even be honest with himself about his own needs, his self-loathing is a powerful, well-chiseled force.

In fact, the characters are hard to like but the story pulls you along.  There’s a ton of sex—or yearning for sex.  (That helps; imagine “Freedom” without lust.  Not possible.)

At the same time, there’s too much back story in spots (for my taste); did we need to know, four-fifths of the way through, about Walter’s father and his Swedish upbringing?  I didn’t get it.

The ending left me flat. Again, I felt too manipulated. There’s a key death that happens off-stage and the impact (on Walter) isn’t confronted head-on.

(By the way, did she have to named Lalitha? Lolita anyone? Another example of Franzen’s in-your-face power.  He’s fearless, alright.)

OK, I’ll say this: “Freedom” is unforgettable.   For me, it’s just a bit of a mess and I wish someone could have had the guts to give it a trim.

I’m really somewhere between three and four stars but Franzen must need some love.  So I’ll give this four stars. I read it. It’s impressive in its own cloying, pushy way.


One response to “Jonathan Franzen, “Freedom”

  1. Tell and tell and tell, cloying and pushy eh? Not sure Freedom will make it to my reading list. Franzen has a piece in the current New Yorker about a trip he took to the Robinson Crusoe island off Chile – part meditation on the solitary nature of fiction, part tribute to his good friend David Foster Wallace. Recommended. Thanks, Mark.

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