Justin Evans's Reviews > Freedom

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
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Mar 21, 11

bookshelves: fiction
Read in March, 2011

Before I read other goodreads reviews, I was going to say that there are two ways to read this: you can read it because you want to read a good story, or you can read it because this is the latest landmark case in the series of cases following the decision of the Supreme Court of Literary Appreciation in re: Modernism v Realism (see also: Samuel Beckett's career; Pynchon's various awards and non-awards; the MFA industry). Apparently, though, you can also read it because you want to know if Franzen is or is not a doucebag. I never thought he was, since I, too, would be weirded out if I wrote a novel that ended up on Oprah's list before Oprah's list expanded to include things like Faulkner and Tolstoy, and would behave in an odd manner in order to retain my usually bullet-proof belief that I am not a sell-out.

Anyway, I'm exactly the sort of person who follows the SCofLA's decisions, but let it be said immediately that Franzen creates wonderful characters without tricking you into 'loving' them; any sympathy you feel for them will always be the kind of sympathy you feel for real people, not the kind of sympathy you feel for too perfect to be true literary characters. It's impressive. It's also nice to read a novel that isn't all about one person's travails; I hope Literary Authors take his example to heart and reject the first-person whinge as novelistic form.

As to the literary historical materials, however. This book is, you may know, realism's great hope. Someone in n+1 declared that in this battle 'realism always wins.' On the other hand, Gabriel Josipovici wrote a whole book about how anti-modernist literature is making us awful people. So there's definitely room for debate here. But really, why debate *this* book? Because its characters read Tolstoy and listen to twentieth century avant-garde music (keeping in mind that Franzen is 58 and so the name-dropping won't be terribly impressive to post-MP3 generation music nerds), are we meant to take this more seriously than Bridget Jones? After all, that referenced Jane Austen in a pretty heavy handed way. The whole thing seemed odd to me to begin with (why not debate Mantel, or Robinson?), and it only seemed sillier as I read through the book.

As I said, it's a great feat of story-telling. But the story-telling is deeply personal and domestic. The characters care about sex, and you will care about whom they sex at. But just because they all talk about how they want their freedom and accuse each other of wanting freedom too much and find it ironic that they, too, want their freedom, that doesn't make it a great social novel. Dickens, for instance, wrote social novels, not domestic ones. There's love in his stories, but the books are *about* the world that surrounds that love. Here, the world seems kind of tacked on. The painting of this book would exquisitely render two people copulating in ecstasy, and then have a newspaper clipping about the middle east 'peace process' (really need to call it something else, policy wonks, something a bit more optimistic, you know?) sticky-taped to the lower right hand corner of the frame.

Now, who cares, right? Well, Franzen seems to care. He called the freaking thing Freedom, for goodness's sake, and frequently compares his characters to characters from War & Peace and generally stuffs in every conceivable issue of importance for the 2000's reader. But it doesn't work. I love that social stuff, LOVE IT. But those were the passages I read less attentively, with one major exception: Richard Katz's wickedly funny, satirical rant about the music industry, which broadens out to become a satire of any human activity whose humans actors take themselves to be doing something subversive. Y'know, like, writing books and goodreads reviews.

My tremendous enjoyment of that passage coupled with the heartburn it gave me convinced me that Franzen shouldn't have tried to write the 21st century's first great realist novel of Dickensian social scope and Tolstoyan historical power. This novel could have been better, quite frankly, if he'd aimed a little further down the genre hierarchy scale. This would have made a beautiful, moving novel of domesticity, with some glances at Eternal Verities of Human Nature, a la Elizabeth Bowen. If it was, I'd be complaining about authors who think that they alone have access to these Eternal Verities, but it wouldn't have turned to sludge every time the words 'Iraq' or 'Oil' or 'Environment' came up.
Alternatively, and, from my perspective, preferably, he could have written a novel more like Katz's rant. If you're going to call a book Freedom, I think you're morally obligated to make it a satire. Maybe Franzen wanted to avoid irony? But satire is painfully un-ironic, in the important sense that it requires the author to bare her soul entirely, to strip away all the possible excuses she can make up for the world: the satirist has nothing to fall back on. 'Freedom' is, obviously, a plea for us to move past the misguided (but prevalent) idea that writers have nothing to say about or to the world, and that they should just focus on revealing how fiction is duplicitous with capital blah blah blah... But the right case to bring before this court is not realism vs post-modernism. Instead of Bleak House, Franzen should've gone a bit further back in literary history, maybe to Fielding (Henry, that is) or, best of all, to Swift. We don't so much need a new Dorritt; we do need a new Gulliver. That wouldn't be a best-seller, but it would be better.
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message 1: by James (new)

James Totally agree with you. Wasn't sure if I even wanted to read this book after reading a bunch of reviews (the title is horrendous!). And I totally sympathize with the need for a new Gulliver, though, of course, Swift wrote that one in the first person and, since you feel first person narratives are a little played out (which is true, but only because they've been exploited on a grand scale by mediocre writers or authors who have no original vision), I'd be curious if you think such a novel would work in the third person. I personally think we need literature more like the Greeks, something more disarming, that subtly engineers a different awareness. Satire is becoming a little noxious in my opinion, just because people are too cynical and don't take things seriously enough for satire to really be affective. But if someone could recreate the awesomeness of Gulliver's Travels, then by all means go to it!!! Seems you'd need another restoration era sort of atmosphere, where morals still carried greater weight for that to happen. Thanks for the great review.

Justin Evans Yeah, I thought of that Gulliver's in the first person thing a few hours after writing the review, darnit. I try to read contemporary satire, but it's so... i don't know, bloodless? Maybe you're right to say that overwhelming cynicism makes satire difficult. I'm trying to find a way to talk about a satirical form that is deeply, deeply uncynical. Who knows if that's out there; I think Franzen'd be a good shot to pull it off if he tried. Which Greeks do you have in mind?

message 3: by James (new)

James Aeschylus and Xenophon would be a good place to start. Xenophon because he wrote the most amazing story of a group that is lost and must struggle to survive, which becomes a fitting allegory for modern times, since, like the Greek Mercenaries in Anabasis who followed money and pride when they went to fight for Cyrus, we have basically landed ourselves in a desert of nihilism. Aeschylus because he captures the powerfulness of a public myth that embraces an entire culture in the Orestia (the story of the refounding of justice). I see literature as a companion to philosophy and criticism, and most writing today just tries to be clever; it doesn't trust the intelligence of its audience, and I really wonder if successful artists/writers (like Franzen), having been surrounded and feted by an industry geared towards money-making, could dig deep enough to find the elements to create a work on par with The Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost. One would have to suffer, I gather, like Milton and Dante. Just some thoughts.

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