Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul—the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter’s dreams. Together wit
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I read Freedom the week before Christmas. What was I thinking? Did I want a bleak, almost sullen, portrayal of America in the new century? And not a complete one, either, but limited to privileged white people? Why didn’t I just sit on the couch, get drunk, and watch Salt and Easy A? Ok, I did that, too, but my kids were off of school and apparently believe they should get to watch television as well, so I went upstairs and read away a few afternoons. Stupid Freedom. Mr. Franzen, you’re good. Mo
I get the feeling Franzen has read a lot of endless Russian novels and aspired to write his own. I read the novel quickly and slipped easily into Franzen’s buttery sentences and narrative structure. Near page four hundred I was reading through laced fingers. I felt like I was watching a particularly intellectual movie in which the characters make some really stupid stupid fucking choices. Freedom is complex and well-written but, while the characters’ inner monologues ring truthful, their broad decisions and circumstances often do not. I think Franzen is addressing the “freedom” theme with a focus on how Americans in particular face such a intimidating array of potentialities and the sense that you made the “right” one is almost impossible to attain. On Tuesday you might be in love with your husband but six months later leaving him might feel perfect. Which choice is a sign of truth and which of selfishness? Are you repressing emotions you don’t understand? How well do you know your own motivations? If you stay in a dead marriage are you dooming yourself to decades of regret? What if the marriage isn’t really dead but dormant? What internal perspectives do you control that transcend success and failures? Who can you trust if you don’t know yourself, and how well, really, can you know yourself? These are important questions, and Franzen starts the colloquy well, but these people and storylines function as privileged archetypes except when the plot-architect in Franzen’s consciousness decides to throw a curve here and there because he knows he’s supposed to do so. Franzen is sometimes too meta for his own novels’ good.
Freedom also lacks timelessness. In twenty years readers will need endnotes with designations like “Jeff Tweedy: leader of Wilco, an influential country rock band” or “NPR: National Public Radio, an over-the-airwaves audio news station often associated with affluent liberals”. In attempting to catch the spirit of the age Franzen has focused on details that will lack future context. I guess that’s ok. I doubt he’s writing for people 100 years down the road and the details add to the novel’s landscape. This is a book for white people (uh, except Oprah, I guess) with good intentions who listen to NPR, went to college, and kind of hate themselves sometimes. Some of these people, apparently, assign awards and press coverage to literature and a weird cottage industry has emerged around slamming/endorsing Jonathan Franzen’s work. I’m going to leave that conversation to others because I don’t care much one way or the other. You want to argue that one, knock yourself out. I’ll be over here. Franzen mistakes aiming high with these characters, as far as themes are considered, for universiality. And I’m not sure that some of the characters’ wild swerves are more than the author’s personal regrets and fantasies. Listen. I’m going to say that Franzen doesn’t tread this territory as well as, say, Dostoevsky. But remember, then, I’m placing his work in the same sentence as Dostoevsky. I can’t think of many writers alive who can touch his technique. Future generations’ English majors will probably read this novel in a class called “American novels: 2000-2050” and write term papers with titles like “Materialism and Self-Identity in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom”. They’ll probably get A’s. Franzen, I think, has lived in that literary subculture for a long time, and he’s good at delivering material that exemplifies the best it has to offer. He’s a brilliant technician, and I like brilliant technique, but I’m not sure I loved Freedom as much as I admired it. Freedom is commendable but not great, expansive but nervous in its own expanse.
Also, I wish I read something less fucking depressing the week before Christmas. But that’s my fault. I should know better.