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September 12, 2010

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I suspect that if I’d ever read the Russians, I’d have a good understanding as to why Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom had to end up being so bloated. It would make sense of why a novel one might describe as bloated has received glowing reviews across the board, which had raised my expectations so much that the bloat came as a bit of a disappointment. But for me, the Russian illiterate, the bloat was just bloat, but alas, there was still a lot to love about this novel.

Freedom is the story of the Berglund family, who are introduced in the novel’s first section through a cacophony of hearsay and neighbourhood gossip. We see the family from without– Patty, pushing her stroller up and down the street before the neighbourhood was even fashionable, her well-meaning husband Walter, their growing family of son Joey and daughter Jessica. Patty is unflappable, never says a bad word about anyone, won’t tolerate gossip about her neighbour Carol, single-mother of daughter Connie, until Connie starts sleeping with Joey, and Patty just snaps. They could never prove it, of course, but somebody slashed the tires on Carol’s boyfriend’s car, and that somebody was probably Patty, and then Joey ends up moving in with Carol and Connie, too many bottles start showing up in the Berglund’s recycling bin, and eventually the Berglunds move away to Washington, Joey becomes a Republican, and somehow the conservationist Walter ends up embroiled in a scandal involving his relationship to coal companies.

The rest of the novel gets close to the Berglunds, and shows us how they got from there to here. The various sections are told from the point of view of Patty (who has written her autobiography in third person), Walter, Joey, and Walter’s best friend, musician Richard Katz, who has always complicated the relationship between Walter and Patty. Like Franzen’s previous novel The Corrections, Freedom is an unflinching depiction of contemporary family life, of its peculiar dynamics, and– like Lionel Shriver’s recent So Much For All That, which I thought was a finer specimen of a novel– the book also is a statement about American society in general. This point gets hammered home through various treatments of the concept of freedom– to define ourselves apart from our families, freedom to defend our country after September 11, 2001, how the term is hijacked by the left and right, freedom as an export, freedom to be you and me, and then these diatribes about environmentalism and overpopulation, and soon I really wasn’t sure of the point being hammered home as much as I was just sure of the hammer.

The characters didn’t convince me. The Patty Berglund we saw from the outside was an intriguing character in all her quirky ordinariness, but her autobiographical section didn’t feel authentic. Moreover her character didn’t either– others described her amazing laugh, which was nothing more than “Ha ha ha” on the page; she was a woman who’d made little of herself, but I was never sure why everyone was so sure of how smart she actually was, down deep; I didn’t get the dynamics of the marriage either. It was all very confusing and eventually I just didn’t really care who did what or why, because no one needs to make life that hard. Life is hard enough all on its lonesome. And I guess I felt that way about everyone populating this book, this family.

Patty only became vivid to me again in the novel’s final section, which is the mirror image of the opening, once again, the Berglunds from the outside. Part of the relief was that the characters had finally quit doing idiotic things, but they all somehow just seemed much less like nonentities from the outside. I cared about them from the outside, they clicked with the world from the outside, they all just made a bit more sense than from that scrambled place inside their heads. Part of this was also that Franzen was allowing the story to tell itself, rather than painstakingly laying it out for us, piece by piece, and piece by piece by piece.

It’s a smart trick though, framing a novel with bits that are so wonderful, that when you finish the book, you put it down and say, “What a brilliant book. What a perfect ending”, even though about two hundred pages before, you’d wanted to leave the whole thing on the bus. Such framing makes the slog seem worthwhile, especially since the slog itself was rife with good writing, intriguing set-ups, humour, and good questions about our assumptions of every day life. So I’m glad I read Freedom, I definitely am, but I also am terribly relieved that I’m not reading it anymore.

7 thoughts on “Freedom by Jonathan Franzen”

  1. I just finished The Corrections on Saturday and kind of felt the same way, glad I read it but relieved to be not-reading it. And, yet, this morning I found myself looking for my copy to take with me as the day’s read: I still wanted to know what was going on with those damaged, mostly-unhappy characters and had forgotten that it was all done with. I’m heading for Freedom after I realize that The Corrections is really over.

  2. Kristin says:

    I have been debating about reading this. I liked your review–it’s kind of nice to read something about him that isn’t all about how he’s THE Writer of the World right now. Interesting.

  3. I think the comparison with the Russians is wrong: with a couple of exceptions, most of the classic Russian writers (Chekhov, Gogol, Turgenev) wrote short books. Even Tolstoy wrote one classic novella (The Death of Ivan Illych) and a handful of well-regarded shorter pieces, and Dostoevsky wrote the novella Notes from Underground.

    The better comparison, I think, is between Franzen and the English Victorians – Thackeray, Trollope, Dickens, George Eliot. Now THERE are some bloated writers.

    1. Kerry says:

      True that. I guess I was thinking of Tolstoy, due to the book’s references to War and Peace (rumoured to be a bit long, apparently).

  4. patricia says:

    Dead-on review. Having finally read the book, I am so utterly confused as to all the hoopla around it. In fact, I’m not just confused, I’m bloody pissed off. And also terribly relieved that I’m not reading Freedom anymore. Grumble.

  5. Mrs. B. says:

    What a perfect review. You just hit the nail right on the head. Though I fear you may have liked the book a bit more than I did. I found myself, quite a few times, wishing I weren’t reading it and only pushing myself to finish because I was “344 pages in and I just can’t stop now…” Plus, Oprah told me to read it and I do just about everything Oprah says. 😉 (I kid.)
    Anyway, thank you for a wonderful review on a less-than-wonderful book. “Bloat” is the perfect word for it.
    I’ll be linking to your reveiw from my site.

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