Monday, May 2, 2011

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

FreedomOkay, so I’m about eight months behind the rest of the world, but I’ve now finished Freedom.

I began reading it over Easter as it's the sort of book that benefits from long hours spent on the couch while nothing much needs to be done. It needs immersion.

Having said this, it took me a good while to get sucked into the narrative – in fact, I thought about giving up after 50 pages and again at 100.   Ah, at least I finished The Corrections...

Part of the problem was I’d previously read the opening section, ‘Good Neighbours’, in The New Yorker. This 23 page section is the obvious chunk to exhibit in other settings, but it is not a short story. The main characters – Walter and Patty Berglund – are at too great a distance, as events are told from the perspective of their Ramsey Hill neighborhood, often narrowing down to neighbours a fews doors down, Seth and Merrie Paulsen. Nor is this the standard opening to your typical contemporary social realist novel, which would start much less jauntily and also have the main characters in much closer focus.

The novel then shifts to the first manuscript within manuscripts: Patty Berglund’s autobiography, Mistakes Were Made... (composed at her therapist’s suggestion). Part way through this section I found the wormhole into Franzen’s fiction and could finally empathise with his characters and I was away laughing (or sighing at the state of the world, as the case may be).

At page 190 there’s another structural shift. This section is called '2004', and deals with events which all climax in said year of our lord. Each chapter takes a main character’s perspective, and we often circle the drain of one nadir from two or more perspectives over two or more chapters. It is during this section that the POLITICAL MESSAGES are set forth in a manner so overt that one can’t quite call the author out. Surely this is meant to be over-the-top? Surely this character is has moved beyond an authorial mouthpiece to become another extremist to be avoided?

In the end I didn’t have a problem being bludgeoned with stats about overpopulation or declining numbers of songbird species (and Franzen did manage to make me feel a bit bad that I care more about the latter than the former). I even forgive the heavy handed ‘You want freedom? You can’t handle freedom’ strand that shouted THEME, THEME, THEME, every time it appeared. That’s fine. In fact, a book like this should come with some social commentary chops. It demands it. The love triangle stor line demands something broader, just as the social commentary demands examples on the micro level.

As Emily Perkins put it on The Good Word (watch the episode online here), the Walter-Patty-Richard Katz love story “acts as a Trojan horse for the author’s moral outrage.”

After '2004', we have a second instalment of Patty’s autobiography in the third person, composed six years later, which is followed by a brief denouement section that mirrors ‘The Good Neighbours’, told from the perspective of Walter’s neighbours in the newly (and appallingly) named Canterbridge Lakes Estate.

On a structural level then, there’s a lot going on. I am undecided whether the palindromic structure is a stroke or a stunt of genius. It’s clear J-Franz has IT, whatever it is we’re all looking for in our writers: cajones, verbal alacrity and something to say, a deep moral vein and a finger on the pulse of kids these days... but there’s always the push and pull of his fiction and his FICTION, of the story he’s telling and the book he’s writing, of the look at my characters and the look at me.

For example, there are scenes that are just plain bad. Like, so bad they couldn’t work anywhere else except buried midway through a 600 page novel. Like the scene between Walter, his assistant and wannabe lover, Lalitha, and Richard Katz that starts on page 215 (NB: I think I have the version that was printed from the earlier proofs so my page numbers may be off; if not, they still missed some howlers in the final final version). We get nine pages of dialogue so ludicrously content heavy (explanation of the Cerulean Mountain Trust and Walter’s overpopulation hobbyhorse) that Katz is reduced to, “Incredible,” and “That does sound tough” and “This is all sounding more familiar.” Way to turn the brooding, Byronic anti-hero rocker into a compliant interlocutor and shunt this here reader from your fictional coil, if only temporarily.

But I don’t want to get too down on what is a good-great novel and will surely make my top ten books for the year. It didn’t make me weep on the last page like it did the usually stoic Steve Braunias (as per the above Good Word episode), but it packed plenty of heart-punches (those moments of utter, instant sadness when you look up from the book and say to yourself, ‘How could this middle-aged American author possibly now what it feels like to be me?’). I'm glad there's a writer like Franzen out there writing novels like The Corrections and Freedom and I'm glad there's a big readership for what he's doing. On a day like today, with the uncomfortable scenes coming out of the U.S. after the death of Osama bin Laden, I feel there's plenty of fuel left for the fire.

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