Maia's Reviews > Freedom

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
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Sep 17, 2010

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bookshelves: contemporary-fiction
Read from September 17, 2010 to March 08, 2011

Well, I finished Freedom quite a while ago and one of my Bookclubs has already discussed it (ad nauseam, I may add) to a predictably contradictory and confusing mix of reviews. Unsurprisingly, at least half the members were unequivocally 'for' while another half were just as 'against' and then a few--such as myself--remained on the fence, not yet 100% sure. I'm still not sure. I waited this long before posting an actual review because I've still been digesting--not the book, exactly, or even its merits, but my own reaction to it. Which in and of itself may be one of the novel's core strengths. However you look at it, if enough people are left musing over what you've written, you must have done something right.

This is why I give it 3 stars--would have given it 3.5 stars if possible. Even though I can't honestly say I a) enjoyed the book (half of it bored me to tears, a quarter of it at least I did not believe in) or b) rate it as high literature. I'll be frank: Franzen's writing and his view on life, humanity, America, whatever left me with a sour feeling which I don't rate as 'art' (not the same sour feeling, for e.g., that I experienced the first time I read Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery' in high school). Many, many times as I read this novel I wished he was right there in front of me so I could insult him and kick him in the shins! :) Ok, joking aside. I simply don't buy the 90% reviews all over the lit landscape/blogsphere/newspapers etc that place this guy/this novel up there as an American Tolstoy or War and Peace. Seriously! What a disservice to poor Tolstoy, what a minimization of War and Peace. I also most definitely do not consider Franzen the 'first great 21st C writer' or some such nonsense as spouted by others--and I actually consider THAT a disservice to Franzen himself, since it hangs the bar so high that posterity (the real judge) has no chance of judging accordingly.

But I do believe Franzen has a particular talent all his own, and that he hits certain cultural chords right. There were plenty of times as I read Freedom when I was nodding my head and feeling that warm fuzzy sense of recognition and identification.

From a purely structural POV, my biggest gripe with this novel is voice. The beginning is quite terrific--a sort of mordant, tongue-in-cheek tone, a literary 'Desperate Housewives' vibe that sets up the scene wonderfully. I could 'see' everything Franzen wanted me to see. Then he moves the reader to a particular POV, which is ex-jock/stay-at-home mother Patty, and here the problems start. Patty's voice doesn't seem any different from the earlier voice, that of the omnipresent narrator. Worse, her voice doesn't seem at all to match the Patty earlier presented by that narrator. Even worse, it does not seem to be the voice of a female, much less a jock, even less a mother. Simply put, I could 'see' Franzen's authorial hand at pretty much every juncture and my suspense of disbelief was always off. I kept waiting for the moment when the writing would gather momentum and Patty would become real to me--as real as she was in the introductory chapter--but that moment never came, and I stopped believing in her as anything other than a lit device, a symbol for something else. So that's Patty: a wasted opportunity, in my view.

Then we have the male characters, who are all universally and uniformly awful. There's no way around that, they're all just plain awful. Well, Patty--when in her own voice--is pretty awful too but, since she never seems real to me, I could let that go. The male characters, on the other hand, DID seem real, in a Franzen-sort of way and, because of that, their awfulness seems more inexcusable. Of all the awful males, Richard Katz is funnily enough the least awful, maybe because he's supposed to be awful? Walter, on the other hand, is simply impossible. I couldn't stand him from the first moment he appears. In Walter I saw every smart, nerdy, annoying guy I've ever known. Those guys I'd never have dreamed of dating (ever!) and yet who seemed to believe that simply by virtue of being male and 'wanting' to date me (or another girl/woman) they had a right to. I wanted to shake him and I despised him, his underlying narcissistic sexism despite his often spouted 'feminism'. That's not true feminism at all. I was brought up by a feminist dad and my dad would have labeled Walter a hypocrite.

Lastly, we have Joey--possibly, the most awful of all the awful male characters. As a mother of boys, I'd be weeping on my knees if my sons ever turn out like Joey. I'd be ashamed of myself and begging forgiveness to all future females unlucky enough to cross paths with him!! Joey is simply disgusting and I'm glad to say that as a mother and a teacher I rarely encounter young men his age as awful as that. In fact, quite the opposite. Joey is clearly the product of an older man's imagination (Franzen's), and not representative of his generation.

Talking of Joey--possibly the most gut-wrenching awfulness of the book is the character of Connie and her relationship to Joey. Connie is like some sort of backwater, boondog recreation, dim-witted yet 'wise' in her savage naturalness. I am happy to say I have never in my entire life come upon a girl like that, and hope I never will.

So, considering all these 'awfulness' why do I still give it 3 stars? Would have given it another half star if the GR system allowed it? Because I actually respect Franzen for writing this book. I respect his writing, and I was for the most part immersed in it even when I was conscious the entire time that his view of humanity is polar opposite to mine and that Franzen himself is most likely a man I would despise, if I ever met him in person. Already I despise a lot of him simply by reading his books. But I still think he's a good writer, a strong and courageous writer. And I believe he successfully created an entire world, one I believed in for a while on some levels while I was writing. I most certainly do not for one minute believe him to be any sort of 'genius'--and I'd be a lot that history will prove me right--but I do believe that with Freedom he's created an accurate and very postmodern slice of American life.
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Reading Progress

09/17/2010 "I've resisted, and resisted, and resisted reading this book--which I see everywhere, thereby inflating my deep-rooted suspicion. I even see it everywhere in Germany--already translated, eh?--which makes me even more suspicious."
34.0% "Finally, time to read "Freedom". And I have to say: I am pleasantly surprised. I'm actually enjoying it very much, laugh out loud at odd moments, and certainly recognize "Patty"--have seen "her" everywhere! :)"
05/13/2016 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by M (new) - rated it 4 stars

M Fantastic review! I resonated a lot with this.

message 2: by K (new) - rated it 4 stars

K I admit to liking the book better than you did, but your review is fabulous.

message 3: by Mark (new)

Mark as the above have said; i loved your review. Thank you

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