Pocket Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

So it seems that Oprah has given Jonathan Franzen another chance to be gracious. Back when she picked The Corrections as her 2001 Book Club selection, his various objections to the company he’d be keeping got him booted. But just as the difference between middle-class and upper-middle-class is deceptively wide, so is the gap between middlebrow and upper-middlebrow. Franzen has finally decided which he’s writing—that would be the latter—and he’s obviously OK with it. Freedom is a 21st-century family drama concerned with morals and mores, and while it probably isn’t The Great American Novel everyone’s been holding their collective breath for, it’s A Fine American Novel, and worthy of inclusion in Oprah’s American pantheon whether you think that’s a good thing or a questionable one.

Nine years ago Franzen cited his “inexperience in handling the media and attributed his reservations to not wanting to see a ‘corporate logo’ on the cover of his book.” If nothing else, this year has been his crash course in how to weather publicity, and presumably the book’s heartfelt politics will forestall the need for any more No Logo schtick on his part. Freedom is the tale of an American family, the Berglunds: Walter and Patty, their children Joey and Jessica, and the concentric rings of parents, lovers, friends, employers, and neighbors around them. It’s also a story of how political good and political greed spring from our needy and corruptible selves; I’m not sure I buy it all the way, but Franzen makes his case well enough. For a novel ostensibly concerned with nature, this one is all about nurture.

It opens with a sweeping overview of the young Patty and Walter, told in a neighborhood voice that brings to mind the boys’ chorus from Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, all grown up and still living within a few blocks of each other. From this terrifically promising exposition Franzen proceeds to move back and forth in time, among multiple points of view, from Minnesota to Westchester to Washington, D.C to Charlottesville, with a detour in Paraguay for a dose of corrupt Third World economics (though nowhere near as enjoyably creepy as The Corrections’ Lithuania interlude). He loses some focus with all the shifts—the pivotal sections narrated by Patty are done in a weird middle distance third-person voice, and the conceit that they comprise a real-time physical document, on which the story hinges, is a bit disorienting. At the same time the process of fleshing out the cast is compelling: Patty, Walter, and Joey all become truly interesting over the course of the novel, and Walter’s best friend (and Patty’s on-and-off romantic interest), musician Richard Katz, is a great character. Franzen doesn’t do as well by his peripheral women—the Berglunds’ daughter Jessica, Joey’s girlfriend Connie, and Walter’s pretty young employee Lalitha (the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate is pretty much all you need to know about her) never much get past the armature stage.

This doesn’t seem to be so much an inability to write women, though, as just too many balls in the air. The novel is good but it’s overweight, and overweight for valid reasons. The writing is observant and intelligent about how we live and how we mess that up: parenting gone awry in small, shattering ways; political tradeoffs that make sense until they suddenly don’t; lovers and spouses caught looking over each other’s shoulders at something else in the distance. Freedom is a very moral story. Still, the novel felt like getting into a slightly drunken dinner-party political discussion with a left-leaning Libertarian—each separate argument holds, but when taken together they add up to something you wish you’d argued against more cogently when you wake up the next morning. Franzen has a lot to say, and he says it well. But although the parts all work—I couldn’t point my finger at any set piece in particular that dragged the book down—that doesn’t mean they all needed to be there.

The plot seems large but really it’s not, other than covering a number of characters during a 20-odd year timespan. Patty and Walter meet in college, marry for some right and some wrong reasons, and have children, who grow from neighborhood kids to young adults. Walter, a career do-gooder, finds himself backed up against some serious compromises and screws up; Patty is competitive, needy and short-sighted, and she screws up; Joey is spoiled and self-centered and, with no idea what to do with the advantages handed him early in life, screws up; Richard Katz’s band racks up critical success and a Grammy nomination, so you know he screws up. Franzen doles out his compassion in tiny doses, but that’s not what makes the players tolerable. Rather it’s their refractional qualities—he’s a keen observer of human foibles, and his characters are complex enough to feel familiar. We can’t quite despise them because they are, to some extent or another, us.

This is what’s put the book in the running for Great American Novel: It’s so full of detail and pop culture and contemporary insight that it should hold riches for a lot of readers. A large swath of the population will come away feeling that yes, their lives do have a narrative arc, and it’s all right here. This is not a terrible acknowledgment for a novel to stake its claim on, that kind of recognition. It works as well as anything else. The concept of freedom is woven into the narrative with regularity, but it could just as well have been called Entitlement and been the same book. Its characters, most of whom start out with the scales firmly weighted on their sides—whether by privilege, talent, unconditional love, or integrity—are free to make all sorts of mistakes, and do. Yet in the end they’re still entitled to a certain upbeat ending, or at least one still full of possibility. And as readers? We’re obviously entitled to the same.

The hype surrounding Franzen will eventually die down, and what we’ll be left with is the book we deserve: sprawling and personal and deeply entrenched in its present. Whether it will endure the tests of time is mostly irrelevant—Freedom, as the title asserts, is a fun ride while it lasts.

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13 Comments to Pocket Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

  1. Katie's Gravatar Katie
    September 17, 2010 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    I can’t bring myself to open it. Much less buy it. I found Te Corrections to be so hideously a waste of trees. But I know many loved it.

  2. steve's Gravatar steve
    September 18, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    I never know whether or not we three should comment on each other’s blogs, but man, Lisa, that was a fantastic review of “Freedom.” Quite apart from the merits of the book, the review is a work of art.

  3. lynn's Gravatar lynn
    September 18, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Great review Lisa. When you say that, “A large swath of the population will come away feeling that yes, their lives do have a narrative arc, and it’s all right here”, that reminds me of The Corrections. All its problems aside, most everyone I knew who read that book identified with it in some way. (One example, for me the father in that book was my own dad, even though they were very different. So hard to explain…)

    Franzen has this ability to somehow to pull us into the story and make us empathize in a way that makes it seem so personal. I don’t know whether this limited by cultural identification , or if it’s something more universal, but IMHO it’s one of the things that makes his novels stand out.

  4. Margarita's Gravatar Margarita
    September 18, 2010 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Lisa, this is a fantastic review – definitely one of your best! Even in my fairly oblivious current state of mind, I could not help but become aware of all the hype around Freedom, and get intrigued. Definitely looking forward to “having a read” at it, and that is exactly why I loved the review – it makes you want to anticipate and analyze the book itself. Whether it is a culturally conditioned or universally understandable “Great Novel” (or, per chance, both), remains to be seen while reading it. I am looking forward to exploring that aspect also, having not been raised here and having observed much of the culture of the place as an outsider even while living in New York. Thanks again for the wonderful review!

  5. September 19, 2010 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    I have to say with all of the hullabaloo surrounding “Franzenfreude,” I had no desire to read his goliath prose. Your articulate and lyrical review was not only beautifully written, but makes me want to delve into Franzen’s family saga. Fabulous review!

  6. DarkLayers's Gravatar DarkLayers
    September 20, 2010 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Lisa, some would argue that Franzen always knew what kind of books he wanted to write–he wasn’t bent up on whether he was a middle or upper middle brow writer. He was bent up on the image he wanted to portray. It wasn’t a decision about the content of the books so much as the associations he wanted to have and the pictures he wanted to paint of himself.

    http://www.complete-review.com/quarterly/vol3/issue1/oprah2.htm

    As complete-review documents, if you look closely enough:
    ” As any reading of the — admittedly often edited — interviews shows, Franzen manages to come off as some sort of elitist (more a pathetic than a raging one) without too much help. And statements such as: “The Corrections was a good Oprah choice because I have low taste myself” don’t exactly help matters. (It is what has become an almost typical Franzen statement, taking the vocabulary being tossed around and trying to make himself sound like-minded with Oprah and what she stands for — without providing any actual information — , and managing to offend Oprah and her acolytes once again — here by implying that all Oprah’s choices are “low taste”.)

    Oprah books weren’t exclusively middle brow (The Road, Middlesex), they were just the ones she personally connected with. We know she likes stories about troubled families, and what ever it’s classification or level of challenge, she personally connected with it and wanted to encourage her viewers to check it out. I strongly concur with the complete-review examination that there’s not much ambiguity that Franzen wants to be a high brow writer, but sees the allure of mass appeal.

  7. PatD's Gravatar PatD
    September 20, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    It’s worth noting that Franzen sent Oprah “Freedom,” she did not seek it out.

    Beautiful job, as always, Lisa.

    But I still don’t want to read it. Especially if the few quoted sentences I’ve seen are indicative of the whole.

  8. September 21, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read the book, although I’m inclined to give Franzen credit for even trying to drag the real world into his novel, however awkwardly.

  9. September 22, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Great, great review, Lisa, thank you. Love this: “. The concept of freedom is woven into the narrative with regularity, but it could just as well have been called Entitlement and been the same book.”

    I read The Corrections and disliked it; I won’t be reading Freedom (I have a feeling it would push many buttons for me and in any case, if I’m going to delve into that upper-middle-class dudeular territory I’m more likely to do it with Johns Cheever, Irving and Updike) but I adore *you* for reading the book (and writing this lucid commentary about it so I don’t have to read it and think about it myself.)

  10. Randall Stickrod's Gravatar Randall Stickrod
    September 22, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Absolutely wonderful, Lisa. I was one of those who couldn’t get past page 50 or so of The Corrections, and had no intention of reading this. But by chance, Franzen’s brother, an ER doctor in Portland, is a close friend, and I was given an ARC. I almost abandoned this at page 50 as well, and then the vortex effect took hold and I was a goner. There’s a great deal I didn’t like about this, much that made me uncomfortable, but in the end I know that most of it will stick to me in some way. I say it deserves all the attention it’s been getting.

    And for another fun read, check author Jesse Kornbluth’s review of Freedom on Amazon.

  11. Charles's Gravatar Charles
    May 2, 2011 at 1:12 am | Permalink

    I think this is the fourth review of Freedom I’ve read–in an ill-guided attempt to learn a little more about the novel I spent a significant chunk of time reading–and, while I probably learned a little more (of the sort that interests me) in Charles Baxter’s piece in NYRB, I thought yours was the best written of the bunch–which includes the New York Times and New Yorker–with the fullest, roundest shape and highest ratio of pitch perfect lines. I also think this might be the most intense aesthetic response I’ve ever had to a book review–which isn’t saying altogether much but is still saying something. So I just wanted to add a little more agreement to the review reviewers above: this is great work!

  12. July 6, 2011 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    Thanks for a really well balanced, and not overly serious review. I’m still torn about Freedom (http://tinyurl.com/6yzvwdc), but looking around I’m certainly seeing a full spectrum of opinion. Certainly Freedom divides.

  1. By on September 29, 2010 at 9:27 pm

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