Monday, January 10, 2011

A Review of Freedom a novel by Jonathan Franzen

I had read so much positive spin about this book before its publication that I decided to buy it. Then Oprah picked it and for me, that was a death knell. Oprah’s books are always about some type of dysfunction be it abuse of any kind, man’s inhumanity to man, all in all depressing. To my dismay, my book club even picked it as a selection. So, I dutifully picked up the book and began to read. Now, the reviews I’ve read have, for the most part, been over the top. It is a multilayered, multifaceted, exquisitely written masterpiece yada yada yada. I’m going to put it this way and use a sort of quote from Uncle Stevie, or in this case Stephen King: Some books you read for the beauty of the written word, some you read for a great story but when you find one that has both, then read with abandon. Freedom has great writing and a great story but unfortunately, not at the same time. Read more... 

The main focus of the novel revolves around three people, Patty, Walter and Richard. Patty comes from a wealthy but, surprise, surprise, dysfunctional family. Unlike her artistically inclined sisters, she is tall and prefers athletics, particularly basketball. She is very good at it. During college, where an injury ends her basketball career, she meets the “miraculously worthy” Walter Bergland (also from a dysfunctional family), whom she eventually marries, and his roommate, the lothario musician, Richard Katz (also from a dysfunctional family). They soon become an emotional threesome. Walter’s in “love” with Richard’s disdainful ways, Patty’s in love with Richard’s disdainful ways, Walter’s in love with Patty’s winsome ways, Richard’s in love with Patty because he can’t have her because she’s Walter’s. To characterize Walter and Patty better, here is what Franzen says about them: “Walter’s most salient quality, besides his love of Patty, was his niceness.” Patty was “a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee…famously averse to speaking well of herself or ill of anybody else.” The book is told in sort of novellas. The first part, which I believe is the most brilliantly written part of the book, is told from the perspective of Patty and Walter’s neighbors. It’s sort of like your neighbors telling your life story through gossip. And we learn in quick order that the marriage of the Berglands has gone to smithereens and they’ve moved from Minnesota to Washington, DC, where Walter has gotten himself into some big trouble. The next “novella” is a diary written by Patty about her life and her longing for Richard, the unusual relationship she has with her son, Joey, Joey’s very unusual relationship with the girl next door, and the beginning of the demise of her marriage. The problem with this “autobiography” is that it doesn’t sound like a woman has written it. It is definitely Franzen’s voice. For the remaining novellas, the topics are ALL over the place. We hear from Joey; we hear from Walter; we hear from Richard; and we do hear a great deal from Franzen from atop his soap box. Franzen’s soap box consists of pages and pages of tirades on the loss of bird habitat, the egregious coal industry, the greed of Halliburton Corp, the menace of the Bush/ Cheney presidency, and over population. Franzen doesn’t merely incorporate these topics into the theme of Freedom; he bullies you and beats you over the head with them. And then there are certain aspects of the novel that are just off putting i.e. a 12 year old girl and 10 year old boy having sex, with the girl, as she gets older, characterized as a walking vagina, the now grown boy swallowing his wedding ring and, well, trying to get it out of his excrement with a fork.

Freedom. Freedom from what or to do what? All of the characters crave some sort of “freedom”. Whether it’s from their jobs, from their children, from their spouses, clinging girlfriends, parents, from conventional wisdom, they’re all seeking it. But in Franzen’s world, when they do find the “freedom” they seek, it is unsatisfactory and self-destructive. In the end, most seek reconciliation but don’t always achieve it. There has been so much competition between all of the characters, Walter and Richard for Patty, Patty and Walter for Joey’s affections, Patty and her sisters for their parents’ affections, Patty and Walter’s assistant for Walter, that ranker continues to exist. Whew.

My book club gave it a thumbs down. Amazon readers are pretty well split between 5 stars and 1 star. As the fiction editor for Book World, Ron Charles, puts it, “The point to remember is that Freedom is big enough and thoughtful enough to engage and irritate an enormous numbers of readers.”

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