Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

There is great pleasure in reading genuinely well-written prose and Jonathan Franzen is a writer who delivers exactly that. This is not a self-reflexive, ironic or meta book: Freedom is a good old-fashioned novel which takes its time with character and story. It is a tome. Franzen uses his undeniable prowess to create a rich portrait of his protagonists and their life. As in The Corrections, he creates an entire family’s world and the novels are linked thematically by the aphorism “the only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well”, self-destructive characters, and the fact that no good deed goes unpunished and no altruism is unsullied. As in The Corrections the result is extremely well-crafted, but somehow not enough.

Freedom examines the Berglund family: Walter, the father, is a good man, well-intentioned and frustrated on several levels. Patty is a mother of two who had the financial luxury to stay at home and try to create the family she herself had wanted. She is lost, also frustrated, and ignored by those whose attention she wants, and incapable of giving her full attention to those who crave it. They have a daughter, Jessica, who figures in the story peripherally (and as the ignored sibling that all literary families seem to have). Lastly is their son, and Patty’s golden boy, Joey. He is the product of too much love and indulgence. The family comes together and falls apart (but not necessarily in that order) over the course of the story. It is an examination of their middle class mid-western lives that reaches a kind of crescendo and allows them to move forward. As the story ranges through their lifetimes, Franzen devotes time to each of his major characters and gives each of them a kind of 360 degree portrait. I’m willing to give them a couple of short paragraphs.

Patty is fleshed out in an extended “autobiographical” section in the book. This allows her to be the most revelatory and detailed, but in the absence of the omniscient narrator, also lets Franzen create a full sense of her perspective, but not necessarily a realistic view of her world. Patty is sympathetic, but not likeable, and I strongly suspect that Franzen didn’t like her much either.

Walter chooses to do good works, but must uncomfortably attempt to straddle the line between his desire to help and the extent to which those with power will allow you to do so. He is easily the most sympathetic character.

Joey is an incomplete narcissist despite his own best efforts. We meet him after the damage of his childhood has been done and he is embarking on adult life. He acts in the same manner in both his personal and professional relationships: reckless and remorseless.

I wouldn’t have thought it possible that an extremely well-written book with artfully drawn characters could fall flat, but Freedom does.  Franzen’s downfall is that despite the unquestionable quality of his writing, the product is not equal to the sum of its parts. It became a slog. I was annoyed. It took me some time to figure out why. At first, I thought maybe Franzen needed an editor with a red pen and the will to wield it (don’t we all?), but that wasn’t it. Wasn’t there enough at stake for the characters? This is hardly the first book about Rich People’s Problems, so it is possible to create stories where the reader will genuinely care about the characters’ personal happiness.  In the end, I think that although the reader grows to understand the characters, we don’t like them very much and are not invested in their lives; moreover, Franzen doesn’t seem to have any love lost for them either. Despite this, the writing is so good it almost sustained and carried the book to the end, but eventually it flagged and faltered and left me unsatisfied.

After reading the book, it occurred to be that it could all be seen as a metaphor for the United States and its place in the world. I started to write about that too, but I realised that this is not an essay for a literature class, so I put away my charts and notes and clicked POST.

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