Cdrueallen's Reviews > Freedom

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
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Nov 24, 2010

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Read from October 01 to November 24, 2010

I expected to love FREEDOM because THE CORRECTIONS had in its day been one of my favorite novels; because I'd read the first two chapters in the New Yorker and they'd been standouts in that elite fictional environment; and above all because I'd heard that the human-precipitated collapse of the ecosystem was a major theme in FREEDOM.

The first chapter of Freedom didn't disappoint, full of Franzen's sweetly snarky descriptions of the gentrifying middle class circa 1980's:

"There were... more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother?... Was bulgur really necessary?... How to respond when a person of color accused you of destroying the neighborhood?... Was it better to offer panhandlers food, or nothing?.... Could coffee beans be ground the night before, or did this have to be done in the morning?"

I enjoyed this perfect skewering of a lifestyle in which moral questions about charity and gentrification carry the same weight as decisions about when to grind the coffee beans. I 'd already read B. R. Meyers review of FREEDOM in which he criticized Franzen's language for being "strenuously contemporary and therefore juvenile" but I have no objections to the easy way Franzen's prose slides from eye to brain, going down like a good Gewurztraminer, its fruity sweetness balanced by a little phenolic bitterness and hiding a suprising alcoholic punch. The first sign of trouble came with the second chapter, the one in which Franzen's heroine Patty experiences date rape by the son of a prominent family and lack of support from her own parents. Like the first chapter, I'd already read it in the New Yorker, but unlike the first chapter, I couldn't get myself to reread it. It was hard to believe that the same author who in the first chapter described Patty's neighbor as someone who "had formerly been active with the SDS in Madison and was now very active in the craze for Beaujolais nouveau" opened his second chapter with "If Patty weren't an atheist, she would thank the good Lord for school athletic programs, because they basically saved her life and gave her a chance to realize herself as a person." Realizing themselves as people isn't something I expect (or look forward to) from Franzen's characters.

Self-realizing Patty is the main problem with FREEDOM, because the only thing she ends up realizing after a lifetime of marriage, motherhood, and an illicit love affair with her husband's best friend is that she'd rather be dead than single. But Patty's an Amazon compared to creepy Connie, who atones for her small sexual rebellion against Patty's son Joey by cutting her arms and giving Joey all of her college trust fund money. This so excites Joey that he marries Connie. Because the author doesn't seem to realize how creepy these relationships are, it makes him seem a little creepy too. The only major female character in FREEDOM who has anything going for her is Patty's husband Walter's young lover Lalitha, who though she works for, has sex with, and adores Walter, is at least better at her job than Walter is at his. Which I suspect is why she had to die, the literary fate of far too many interesting women.

In Franzen's THE CORRECTIONS, mom Edith, Patty's analogue in Franzen's family mythology, discovers after forty or so years of marriage that life without her husband is better than life with him, and daughter Denise discovers she loves being a chef more than she likes being to married to one, and that sex with her boss's wife is much better than sex with him. How did Franzen go from these often disagreeable but always fascinating women to the insipid female doormats in FREEDOM? Perhaps because his world view has changed from a Marxist-tinged critique of capitalism and consumer culture to a deeply pessimistic sociobiological view of the human species. in FREEDOM, Franzen isn't wondering whether or not we use our freedom wisely, but if we have any, or whether we're merely evolutionary automata with the probably catastrophic agenda of reproducing our own species at all costs. From this perspective, Patty makes sense. She's one of those socially monogamous birds who mates with the less attractive yet responsible male (Walter) who will help her raise her nestlings, but sneaks off at the first opportunity to have sex with the stronger more colorful male (Richard) who is too busy having sex with lots of chicks to settle down. Makes me wonder if the reason Patty's so in love with her son Joey is that there's something she isn't telling Walter and Franzen isn't telling us about Joey's actual paternity. But even sociobiology can't explain why Joey is so attracted to Connie, who couldn't survive on her own long enough to raise a hamster.

At this point in his career, Franzen doesn't seem to like women any better than Tolstoy did, perhaps placing most of the blame for the destruction of his beloved songbirds on the reproductive agendas of human females. I know just how he feels. But this avian alienation of Franzen's affections presents him with a perhaps insurmountable novelistic problem: how to engage human readers in the plight of a non-verbal species? Franzen hasn't solved it in FREEDOM, whose women annoy and whose men fail to engage my emotions. But there are moments that bring me around to loving FREEDOM. These come when Franzen writes about what he really cares about, which isn't Patty:

"It was the season of migration, of flight and song and sex...Terns came up from one subarctic to the other, swifts took airborne naps and never landed, song-filled thrushes waited for a southern wind and then flew nonstop for twelve hours.... High-rises and power lines and wind turbines and cellphone towers and road traffic mowed down millions of migrants, but millionis more made it through, many of them returning to the very same trees they'd nested in the year before... and there, if they were male, began to sing. Each year, they arrived to find more of their former homes paved over for parking lots or highways... Migrants exhausted by their five-thousand-mile journey competed with earlier arrivals for the remaining scraps of territory; they searched in vain for a mate, they gave up on nesting.... they were killed for sport by free-roaming cats."

FREEDOM's worth reading in spite of its flaws because Franzen has had the courage to write a big readable naturalistic novel with a social agenda, the kind of novel Sinclair Lewis used to write, a style of writing that's so out of style that I for one am extremely grateful that a writer as talented as Franzen is trying to keep it alive.

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Comments <span class="mediumText">(showing 1-3)</span>

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message 3: by Kat (new)

Kat I disagree with several of the points you make. The first is the comment about the opening of the chapter titled MISTAKES WERE MADE, a chapter supposedly written by Patty, though in the third person. The comment that Patty has "realized herself as a person" through sports clues us in to the fact that her brief life in basketball is the only thing Patty finds to value about herself, and clings to it almost pathetically. It's not the author who feels Patty has realized herself.

And Franzen absolutely does realize that Connie is thoroughly creepy. Though when you pose the question of why Joey is attracted to her, you neglect the question of why SHE is attracted to HIM, given his own set of highly undesirable qualities. I think the answer to both questions lies in the earliness of their union, the way they found refuge in each other in a way that created a powerful though dysfunctional bond.

As to the theme of freedom, though Franzen may be commenting on the ways in which we seem not to have much freedom (esp. our sexual attractions), I think he's also arguing that too much freedom is the cause of unhappiness and discontent. There are a number of connections between FREEDOM and WAR AND PEACE. I happen to be rereading the latter right now, and recently read Pierre's reflections while he's a prisoner of the French on this very theme.

Which brings me to the question of whether Tolstoy liked women. I disagree there, too--but I guess that's another discussion. Looking forward to it!

Cdrueallen My point about Patty "realizing herself as a person" is that as a character who thinks about herself in the language of self help manuals it's going to be hard for her to be interesting enough to carry a big novel. It's possible - Sinclair Lewis did it with George Babbit - but Lewis the author had a much more clearly satirical and amusing view of Babbit than Franzen does of Patty.

And where does Franzen indicate that he's anything but fascinated by Connie's creepiness? I looked, but couldn't find it. Franzen has said that Joey is the character he most closely identifies with in FREEDOM, and I didn't notice anything in the novel that indicated the author thought Joey had made a poor bargain by marrying Connie.

As for Tolstoy and women here are a few quotes from him on that subject:

"A good woman sees everything with her husband’s eyes except other women."

"Women do not consider the demands of reason binding upon themselves and cannot progress according to them. They haven’t got this sail spread. They row without a rudder."

"One of the most necessary tasks of humanity consists in the bringing up of chaste women."

"Regard the society of women as a necessary unpleasantness of social life, and avoid it as much as possible."

message 1: by Kat (new)

Kat I think the fact that Franzen identifies with Joey is probably evidence that he DOES find Connie creepy, rather than the other way around, since Franzen's (first?) marriage was evidently extremely dysfunctional. What reader WOULDN'T find her creepy? He doesn't have to say more, it's obvious on the face of things. I like the way he steps back and lets his readers draw their own conclusions here. I do think he makes a plug (so to speak) via these characters for the viewpoint that we as human beings are deeply flawed, wounded, dysfunctional, but that even in the midst of that brokenness we find pieces of happiness (not happiness-ever-after) and are deserving of compassion. Which is my own viewpoint, so I'm sympathetic to it.

And your quotations from Tolstoy are irrelevant, if we're discussing Tolstoy as a novelist. The question is not whether he's a feminist, but whether he likes women. The only thing that matters in this regard is whether he creates likable women characters. I've always loved his two big novels partly BECAUSE I love his women characters. Natasha is animated, talented, independent enough in her thinking to see the hypocrisy of the Orthodox church praying to defeat/kill the French, wonders about the meaning of things (though certainly not to the same degree as the male characters do) and has genuine friendships with other women. I find her extremely likable.

Of course not everyone likes the same people. I didn't have the problems you did with Patty, either. I have a theory about that I'll save for lunch.

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