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Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
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Oct 11, 10

bookshelves: nov-dec-2010

The Big Theme: Freedom--or Darwinian Survival?
"One of the ways of surrendering freedom is to actually have convictions," Franzen told Time magazine (8/12/10). "And a way of further surrendering freedom is to spend quite a bit of time acting on those convictions." Certainly, the novel's title announces its big theme--what freedom means to ideology, family, career--and the picture is not pretty. Patty, who recounts the Berglunds' past in a third-person autobiography, reflects that "all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable." It turns out that Franzen, too, thinks that America's obsession with personal liberty is illusory and ruinous. Even more tragic, Darwinian competition defines freedom: Richard and Walter compete for Patty, and Patty and Walter compete for their children's love, for example. Certainly, wrote Slate, "everyone in the novel comes to rue freedom, their own and others'." Many critics thought this leitmotif truly reflects modern American life. But a few called it heavy-handed. "Unfortunately," noted the Washington Post, "the novel doesn't offer its themes so much as bully us into accepting them with knife-to-the-throat insistence." Then again, that kind of "insistence" is Darwin for you.
The Approach: A Tolstoyan Perspective
"Given his book's scope and its repeated allusions to War and Peace," noted the San Francisco Chronicle, "Franzen seems intent on writing a full-throated 19th-century-style novel--the personal played out against the backdrop of history"--9/11, the war in Iraq, late free-market capitalism, suburbanization, profiteering, wildlife conservation, and gentrification. Yet while his wide lens allows him to use the Berglunds as a filter to explore contemporary America, Franzen keeps his characters' messy tensions in sight and absorbs "Tolstoy's astonishing capacity for [individual] empathy" (Slate). Franzen turns his characters' private lives into public discourse as well: through the Internet, blogging, and YouTube, the Berglunds broadcast their concerns until their "personal crises are thus framed as a microcosm of a national obsession with freedom and global pre-eminence" (Wall Street Journal). Could Franzen, as Slate suggested, be "the Tolstoy of the Internet era"?
The Result: How Does It All Stack Up?
Nine years have passed since the publication of The Corrections, and almost every critic made the inevitable comparison. "Here's another Midwestern family, another surgical exploration of the spent body and wretched soul of America, another ... inquiry into the paradox of being human," said the San Francisco Chronicle. A few opined that Franzen breaks little new ground with Freedom, and the Washington Post went so far as to call it "stale." Others thought that the novel "sharpens the focus of [Franzen's] investigations, avoiding the excesses of the earlier novel" (Los Angeles Times), and that, more tenderly and soberly, it walks the line between social satire and realism. "Franzen's characters still fail here, and fail spectacularly, but the writer's final instinct, having given complex life to the Berglunds, is now to catch them when they fall ... where once he would have mocked," wrote the Telegraph. Most agreed that Franzen has evolved as a novelist since The Corrections--and that Freedom is equally enjoyable, "equally dire" (Slate).
"[To] do something new is not to develop a form for the novel that has never been seen on earth before," Franzen told Time magazine. "It means to try to come to terms as a person and a citizen with what's happening in the world now and to do it in some comprehensible, coherent way" (8/12/10). Critics agreed that Freedom, heralded as a Great American Novel, offers a crystal clear portrait of our times, for better or for worse, and that, like The Corrections, it is a sweeping canvas of contemporary American life. Through richly nuanced characters whose large and small concerns we all recognize (from recycling batteries and using cloth diapers to wrestling with values), Franzen delves deep into the disturbed state of American life and its denizens, "confused, searching people capable of change and perhaps even transcendence" (New York Times). They may not all be likable, but they're human. Many critics thought Patty--and her autobiography--one of the most compelling, wrenching characters in recent literature. And there are few prose stylists as masterful: "Love him or hate him ... you've got to admit [Franzen is] an extraordinary stylist, America's best answer to Martin Amis," wrote the Washington Post.
Of course, with a novel built with such great expectations, criticism was inevitable, even from reviewers who professed to be enthralled with the work. A few took issue with what they described as Franzen's superior tone and dialogue, which sometimes "lapses into filibuster" (San Francisco Chronicle) and threatens to undermine the novel's liberal politics. Some also faulted Patty's manuscript, which plays an important role in chronicling the source of the Berglunds' problems, as inconsistent, confusing, and acerbic. A few far-fetched plots (including Joey's involvement with a corrupt, Halliburton-like corporation) confounded others. But most disturbing of all, perhaps, is Franzen's bleak view of human nature. "The only way to get through hell, Mr. Franzen suggests, is to resign yourself to living there," noted the Wall Street Journal. But classic works--those destined to live long lives on our bookshelves--always raise questions about the questions they raise. To sum it up: "If Freedom doesn't qualify as a Great American Novel for our time, then I don't know what would" (Telegraph). This is an excerpt from a review published in Bookmarks magazine.
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