Grace Tjan's Reviews > Freedom

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
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Sep 25, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: 2010, contemporary-fiction, ebook
Read in September, 2010

Have you ever…

had a dysfunctional relationship with your parents?

had a college best friend that turned out to be toxic?

started up as an idealist but then compromised into working for the dark side?

cheated on your nice guy husband with his cool best friend?

had a teenage son who ran away from home to shack up with the neighbor’s underage daughter?

been corrupted by the military-industrial complex?

If you answer "yes" to any of the above queries, you would probably be able to recognize a part of yourself in the characters of this novel (the Berglunds, Walter and Patty, Midwestern liberals, and their family and friends). Granted, not many among us enjoy looking at ourselves in the mirror first thing in the morning, with all that pillow-plastered hair, sleep-creased face and rheumy eyes staring back at us. Likewise, most of us would probably balk at being forced to look at our mirror images during the low points in our lives. But Franzen provides all these reflections in such a precise, detailed, Technicolor 3-D glory that you just have to look. And then, depending on your life experiences, there will be times when you go “ouch” with painful recognition, and other times when you go “huh” with astonishment. For me, it’s mostly the case of the latter rather than the earlier, but isn’t it the novelist’s job to provide us with those vicarious experiences that we know are fictional but that feel like the truth? And Franzen delivers this in spades, from the messy, often contrarian emotions that one feels as a family disintegrates, to the moral confusion that ensues from adultery, compromises and corruption.

In its denseness, length and ambitious scope, Freedom looks and feels like one of those sprawling 19th century realist novel (Walter is Pierre, Patty is Natasha, and Richard is Prince Andrei/Anatole, or at least that’s how Patty sees it), complete with authorial pontification on virtually every big issue that defines the era that it chronicles. If the 19th century was, among other things, about the emancipation of serfs, the advent of the railways, land enclosures and Napoleonic wars, Franzen’s Bush-era America is about 9/11, environmental degradation, well-connected big businesses and Middle Eastern wars.

In working the issues into the narrative, Franzen sometimes abandons realism and subtlety for broad satire: the rent-seeking foundation that Joey works for is called RISEN (Restore Iraqi Secular Enterprise Now), Walter rants that “WE ARE A CANCER TO THE PLANET” in front of West Virginians rednecks that he displaced to make way for a coal mine/bird sanctuary, and among the kooky names that he considers for his zero population growth NGO are Lonelier Planet, Rubbers Unlimited, Coalition of the Already Born, Smash the Family and All Children Left Behind. And there is a stomach churning comedic/pathetic scene with Joey and his turds (don’t ask).

But at its heart this book is an inquiry into the nature of freedom, how it is exercised and the consequences thereof.

"It’s all circling around the same problem of personal liberties,” Walter said. “People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to."

To be fair, Franzen also skewers liberals like Walter, who takes their environmentalism to loony extremes.

A substantial part of the book is told in Patty’s voice, referring to herself in third person, in the form of a diary that she writes for therapy. This voice has little to differentiate it from the authorial third person, and rather hard to believe issuing from an ex-jock, stay-at-home mom. As I read it I wondered why Franzen insisted on using it. It only became clear why towards the end of the novel, where it provides extra oomph to the bittersweet, wonderfully poignant ending.

So is it War and Peace? No, it’s not War and Peace. But nothing is. It is a well-written novel that successfully captures the post 9/11 zeitgeist, as well as charting the ebb and flow of personal relationships between its flawed as hell but ultimately sympathetic characters in a realistic yet compassionate manner. And like many of the great 19th century novels that it resembles it is also didactic: a cautionary tale about the dark side of freedom.

"The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage."
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Reading Progress

09/13 page 150
26.0%
09/16 page 200
35.0% "Patty is Natasha. Walter is Pierre. Richard is Prince Andrei. Really? I thought that there's quite a bit of Anatole in Richard." 7 comments
02/11 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-37 of 37) (37 new)

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Rauf you are now entering Frazone....


Grace Tjan I'm now on page 150. Are you still reading it?


Rauf No.
I have a deadline in Wed :) the last part I read was the end of chapter 2 of Patti's memoir.


Grace Tjan Rauf wrote: "No.
I have a deadline in Wed :) the last part I read was the end of chapter 2 of Patti's memoir."


I think that it's good but also can be pretty dense. I wonder if he can sustain our interest in the minutiae of Patty & Walter's lives until the end of the book (it's a long book; still 300 plus pages to go).


Merty I wonder why Franzen is motivating by writing about unlikeable characters. Perhaps more work for the writer, that's for sure.


message 6: by Grace (last edited Sep 16, 2010 07:08AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Grace Tjan Merty wrote: "I wonder why Franzen is motivating by writing about unlikeable characters. Perhaps more work for the writer, that's for sure."

Hi Merty!

Yes, I suppose flawed, complicated characters give more work to the writers. But a good writer can make them interesting instead of repulsive. I'm barely halfway through, so we'll just have to see on this one.


Rauf So where are you at?

I just finished that chapter after they went to a Bright Eyes concert.


Grace Tjan I've just finished it last night. : )


Rauf You did?


Grace Tjan Rauf wrote: "You did?"

It's not a difficult read. : )


message 11: by Rauf (last edited Sep 19, 2010 09:44PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rauf So what is the verdict? Is it worth reading or should I ditch this for Boy / Going Solo by Roald Dahl


Grace Tjan Rauf wrote: "So what is the verdict? Is it worth reading or should I ditch this for Boy / Going Solo by Roald Dahl"

Oh, it's worth reading all right. Not War and Peace by a long stretch but worth your time. The ending is good. Full review later.

BTW, have you gotten to that 'Joey and his turds' scene yet? Can't remember if it comes before or after the Bright Eyes concert.


message 13: by Rauf (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rauf No, no turd so far. Perbably in this chapter am reading. It's about Joey.


message 14: by Rauf (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rauf Oh man. Is that where the phrase The Walnut Surprise came from? From the turds?


message 15: by Grace (last edited Sep 19, 2010 11:48PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Grace Tjan Rauf wrote: "Oh man. Is that where the phrase The Walnut Surprise came from? From the turds?"

hahaha. No, thankfully not. But that Joey scene is really gross. Almost on par with the 'bowel movement' scene in The Inheritance of Loss. I don't know why, but he's in almost every gross scene in the novel. Maybe they're supposed to symbolize him being corrupted by LBI or something.


Merty Looking forward to your review, Sandybanks! You always write such great ones with detail! I haven't started this book yet, but will today! I plan on reading along with Oprah and her schedule, if I can! If it's to long, I might go ahead and finish it, if it's good too, I hope it's a good book, lots of positive reviews elsewhere.


Grace Tjan Elizabeth wrote: "What a great review."

: )


message 18: by Jan (new)

Jan Sandybanks, reviewer par excellence! You should get a job as a reviewer, yours are the best!


Grace Tjan Jan wrote: "Sandybanks, reviewer par excellence! You should get a job as a reviewer, yours are the best!"

Thanks, Jan. Any job opening for a reviewer? : )


Merty Bravo, Sandybanks! You hit all the marks in regard to what this book was about!


Grace Tjan Merty wrote: "Bravo, Sandybanks! You hit all the marks in regard to what this book was about!"

Have you read it, Merty?


Merty I am 60% into the book.

Sandybanks wrote: "Merty wrote: "Bravo, Sandybanks! You hit all the marks in regard to what this book was about!"

Have you read it, Merty?"



message 23: by Grace (last edited Sep 26, 2010 10:23PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Grace Tjan Brian wrote: "Nice review, Sandy.

So sorry to see the reappearance of the idea "It’s all circling around the same problem of personal liberties.” Rights are never a problem, and it is typical authoritarian p..."


Brian, the dialogue is spoken by Walter, who is a liberal/leftist. It is one of the opinions in a discussion about freedom in America between several characters (the other characters are portrayed to be having different viewpoints). I don't know enough about Franzen to know whether this is also his view or not.


David This is an excellent review, thanks!


Grace Tjan Brian wrote: "No, I gotcha... I understand this wasn't necessarily the author's message. I was just kind of reflexively standing up to re-slay the beast which seems to perpetually require re-slaying. Sorry if my..."

No, not at all, Brian! : )


Grace Tjan David wrote: "This is an excellent review, thanks!"

Glad you like it, David!


Pamela Huxtable "isn’t it the novelist’s job to provide us with those vicarious experiences that we know are fictional but that feel like the truth? "

terrific insight, thank you.


Barbara Hansen Patty's memoir. First Person????


Grace Tjan Barbara wrote: "Patty's memoir. First Person????"

You're right. Should have been "third person". Thanks.


Barbara Hansen Sandybanks wrote: "Barbara wrote: "Patty's memoir. First Person????"

You're right. Should have been "third person". Thanks."


I really thought it was odd that third person was used here. It made Patty seem even more disconnected.


Grace Tjan Barbara wrote: "Sandybanks wrote: "Barbara wrote: "Patty's memoir. First Person????"

You're right. Should have been "third person". Thanks."

I really thought it was odd that third person was used here. It made..."


The odder thing for me is that this third person Patty voice is virtually undistiguishable from the author's voice. I was expecting Franzen to distinguish between them stylistically, but it seems that it is not the case. I note that some reviewers think that it is a writing flaw.


Barbara Hansen If it was a flaw, it turned out to be a clever one.


Camrose I really really appreciate Sandybanks' review, with which I wholly agree. As for unlikeable characters, I found Patty, and Walter likeable and thoroughly engaging, albeit flawed as we humans are.

Also, I found very interesting the presence of depression in more than one character -- usually of a transient though lengthy duration. We know depression is often hidden, sometimes at great peril to the victim, and that depressed people are often misunderstood as misanthropes. These facts fit well into Franzen's portrayal of the contemporary zeitgeist.


message 34: by John (new)

John Bored me to tears. Everyone was so predictable, saw almost everything coming a mile away. It's like a TV drama, Thirtysomething with modern-day angst.


Spidy Roks For me it is no for all above questions and therefore I thoroughly did not enjoy the book.


message 36: by John (new)

John > In its denseness, length and ambitious scope, Freedom
> looks and feels like one of those sprawling 19th
> century realist novel

It was long but I wouldn't call it dense. Repetitive, but that's not dense. Deborah Eisenberg is more dense in one short story than Franzen is in 600 pages.


message 37: by John (new)

John Barbara wrote: "If it was a flaw, it turned out to be a clever one."

Why?


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