Because I Pretty Much Have To

Cover of "Freedom: A Novel"

Stuff White People Like

You never know when it’s going to happen, and you can’t see it coming.

You’ll be in the middle of a lovely conversation about art, music, current affairs, what have you, and the topic switches to books and things take a turn.  Suddenly people are looking at you with this combination of pity and condescension that wipes out whatever charisma you may have built up like a whiteboard after school.

I usually get this look when people find out I haven’t read The Corrections.  Tragic, I know, and almost insulting that anyone who considers themselves remotely literate hasn’t read Jonathan Franzen’s 2001, National Book Award-winning, Oprah-defying novel.  I’ve had the hardcover on my shelf for years but just never hit the right mood for it.

But I liked Franzen, just as a person.  I respected his criticism of Winfrey and was touched by his friendship with David Foster Wallace and his pain over his friend’s death.  I figured I’d get to him one day.

And then the rumbles started.  It was coming. Franzen’s next book. It was important. It said things. Important things. A novel of our time. By the time that TIME Magazine cover story hit, the hype was deafening, and I am nothing if not a hypebeast.

Plus, the plot of Freedom appealed to me with greater immediacy than The Corrections.  I enjoy the philosophical collisions between liberals and conservatives and I find the post-9/11, early Iraq war era of 2003-2004  rife with literary possibility [read Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs for another fine work set in that time and space]. Plus, there was this quote from the TIME article:

There is something beyond freedom that people need: work, love, belief in something, commitment to something. Freedom is not enough. It’s necessary but not sufficient. It’s what you do with freedom — what you give it up for — that matters.

Freedom is a good book. A really good book.  Is it a capital-G Great book?  I don’t think so. But you might.

Like all good books, the plot of Freedom is both simple, and least important to what the book is trying to say:  Walter and Patty Berglund are married, the toast of the gentrified and liberal block of Minnesota they live on.  As their son becomes a teenager, he moves in with the Republicans next door, Patty descends into depression and starts cheating on Walter with his best friend/adversary Richard, and Walter takes a job with a big coal company in Washington.  How the Berglunds get to that point, and where they ultimately end up, is ostensibly what the novel is about.  But it also has big important things to say about everything from politics, capitalism, and the environment to overpopulation, freedom and the harm it can cause, the economy of music and on and on.

Honestly, I’m troubled by the book.  Franzen hooked me  in the opening pages, an outside-looking-in testimony of the Berglund’s descent as told by numerous neighbourhood witnesses in a style reminiscent of Euginedes’s Virgin Suicides.  When the tone shifts to Patty’s autobiography [penned as a therapeutic exercise] I backed up a bit, but was still willing to slug it out with Franzen.  By the time that was over and the narrative shifted to free indirect, he started losing me.  I came home from work one night, dropped the book on the kitchen counter and The Lady, taking note of where my bookmark was asked me how I was liking it.  My immediate response: “Everyone in this book is awful.”

Which is true.  Every character, to a one, is just an awful, unlikable human being.  From the spinelessness that comes from Walter’s “goodness,” to Patty’s self-centered competitiveness, their son Joey’s youthful pride and arrogance and Richard’s inability to not be an asshole, everyone is just dreadful, and my worry at the book’s midpoint was that I was in for 500 pages of WASP-y angst with some thought-provoking ideas on the issues mentioned earlier.  Which it was.  Walter and Patty do [spoiler] ultimately get put back together, but the book’s concluding optimism comes in the final 20 pages of a 563 page book. The 540 that come before it compile one unrelenting, humourless descent into depression and misery, interrupted sporadically so the characters can get into debates about conservation or war profiteering, the only moments in the book that feel more like Franzen is using his characters to puppet his own ideas instead of having their own.

But I still think you should read it.  None of what I’ve mentioned makes Franzen a bad writer, actually the opposite.  These people can infuriate me so much because Franzen’s mastery of characterization is unparalleled.  Richard pissed me off in all the ways snotty musician types who overestimate their own value always do.  Joey is a know-it-all little pissant shit, like a lot of young Republicans, yet neither he nor Richard nor any of the characters are so one-dimensional they’re defined by these broadest of traits: they’re troubled by the  conflicting pulls of desire and responsibility, by their ultimate bafflement on how to live.   Franzen’s narrative voice is unwavering, and dude can write his ass off with such relaxed ease it makes me want to forget to ever try to write again.  What’s the point when guys this good are walking around?

The scary part is, from what I’ve read regarding this book, he’s not even trying to impress anymore.  His shift to realism, started with The Corrections, carries over here, and his prose is  so natural and restrained, it’s terrifying to think of what the guy’s capable of if he was ever trying to wow the reader with his literary prowess.  But he knows he doesn’t need to, that to do so would be a disservice to the story he wants to tell.

Which is ultimately the problem I had with the book.  Anyone who values good writing, who wants a handbook on what makes good writing needs to read this book.  Franzen is probably one of the best American living novelists working today. I just wish he would direct those talents towards a more diverse cast of characters [Walter’s assistant Lalitha being the only non-Caucasian in the book].

Freedom is at once fascinating, frustrating, enthralling and maddeningly boring, sometimes all in the span of a few pages.

But days after finishing the novel, I’m still thinking of them.  They’re still making me angry, I’m still rooting for them.  And I don’t know that any book has ever made me feel this much, this way.

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