Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (2010)

I have been reading Freedom for the past few weeks. There has been an enormous amount of attention paid to this novel (and to the film Social Network, which is Fall 2010's other major cultural phenomenon): book clubs on Diane Rehm and Slate, reviews (positive and negative, in equal numbers) everywhere, an Oprah appearance and references all over the op-ed pages.

I'm not sure I remember a work of fiction that's gotten so much press coverage in the past 10 years.  And (now that I'm about 450 pages into it), I have to ask: why?

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This book is not impressive in terms of the writing (a point made dramatically in a critique in The Atlantic), the storyline (Joey's foray into the contracting business in the Iraq war is one of the least believable plotlines in years) or the themes. Its central weakness is the highly forgettable characters; the protagonist couple Patty and Walter Berglund struggle with cliche suburbia problems and provide no new insights into what makes Americans tick in the 2000's.

Thematically, the examination of freedom -- and why untrammeled freedom can be confusing and problematic -- should be interesting (I'm thinking here of Eric Foner's The Story of American Freedom), but a good theme needs a story on which to hang itself, and Franzen does not deliver.

Franzen became famous for The Corrections, which came out a couple of weeks before September 11. I had heard of The Corrections through the years but never felt compelled to read it; the conventional wisdom is that it captures the go-go 1990's better than any other book -- thus, the critical acclaim.  Evidently the mainstream media has latched onto him as a readable "high art" novelist, but there are certainly better ones out there: in a comparison, for instance, to (1) Tom Wolfe's Man in Full, (2) Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, and (3) a number of Anne Tyler's novels, Franzen comes up lacking.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the reviews:
  • B.R. Myers in The Atlantic: "Franzen uses facile tricks to tart up the story as a total account of American life: the main news events of the past quarter century each get a nod ... and countless pop-cultural artifacts are name-checked in the most minimal sense of the term. Many people who eschew great books for the latest novels do so because they want precisely this kind of thing. (Every new book we read in our brief and busy lives means that a classic is left unread.)"

  • Sam Tanenhaus in the Times: "Freedom is a word that has been elevated throughout American history to near-theological status, and has been twinned, for most of that same history, with the secularizing impulses of “power.” That twinning is where the trouble begins. As each of us seeks to assert his “personal liberties” — a phrase Franzen uses with full command of its ideological implications — we helplessly collide with others in equal pursuit of their sacred freedoms, which, more often than not, seem to threaten our own. It is no surprise, then, that “the personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage,” as Franzen remarks. And the dream will always sour; for it is seldom enough simply to follow one’s creed; others must embrace it too. They alone can validate it."

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