Paula's Reviews > Freedom

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
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Oct 08, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction, best-reads-of-2010
Read from October 03 to 06, 2010

Franzen's new novel is brilliant, creepy and not without some flaws (surprise. surprise. it's not perfect). I was totally enthralled for the first 400 pages, but much less so for the last 150. Which either means that the novel is unjustifiably over-long or that I'm just not a big fan of the traditional narrative strategies employed to bring resolution and closure to a novel. Neither interests me much. And Franzen does tie up Freedom pretty neatly at The End. Before I say anything more about this novel in particular, I'm going to indulge in a little rant about characters in novels in general. Unlike many readers, I don't expect characters to be "realistic" in the sense that they need to remind me of someone I know or ever have known. Characters must, on the other hand, be authentic (fit) within the world of the novel. Characters in novels need to be realistic as characters in novels. Most have a lineage that extends back through the history of the genre. That said, it is a rare and thrilling experience to meet a character who is entirely new (to me). One of the very few I can think of is Josef Kavalier in Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. On the other hand, Walter Berglund, one of the main protagonists in Freedom, although nominally more realistic, reminds me of T.C.Boyle's misanthropic nature-lover Delaney Mossbacher in his much more allegorical novel Tortilla Curtain. If I had to categorize either of these novels, I'd call them empathetical-satirical novels. Much of Freedom is is both a dead-on skewering of contemporary America and highly comedic. But Franzen forgives his characters almost every one of their foibles and flaws and wants his reader to do the same.
The story in Freedom is mainly told from the point of view of Walter (a rather annoyingly Good Person, who is dishonest with himself for most of the novel) & his wife Patty (Emerson) Berglund (high school & college star basketball player cum consummate if somewhat whacko mom).The most engaging chapters in Freedom belong, however, to Richard Katz, Walter Berglund's best friend from college, cult rocker & cad ("Mountaintop Removal") and to Walter & Patty Berglund's Republican son, Joey ("Womanland").
Most of the secondary female characters in the book remain largely indecipherable: Walter & Patty's daughter Jessica; Walter's young assistant, eventual lover and only "person of color" in the novel, Lalitha; and, Connie, Joey's high school girlfriend, financial backer & ultimately, wife. It's safe to say that Franzen knows and understands his male characters better than his female ones, even if Patty Berglund's "Autobiography" does take up a lot of page space in this long novel.
It also occurs to me that, oddly, for a 21st century American novel set largely in urban areas like St. Paul, New York & Washington, D.C, the characters are universally (with the somewhat minor exception of Lalitha)white, so white in fact, that even the Jews among them all seem to be blondes. This isn't exactly a criticism (well, perhaps, it is) but just something to notice. There is one scene late in the novel, where Patty Berglund, attending her father's funeral, remarks on the poorer, darker-skinned mourners seated in the rear of the church--the faceless, nameless pro bono clients of her high-powered , much-respected and overly busy lawyer dad, whose lives inadvertently & negatively impacted her childhood.
Bottom line: Freedom is worth reading, warts and all.
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