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Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
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's review
Sep 11, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: favorites, relationships

"Freedom" is a descriptive novel of life in America during the first decade of the 21st Century, from the point of view of the author, Jonathan Franzen, told via the life, experience, and circumstance of a married couple of boomer age. Franzen is an astute observer, and yet his voice is muddled – which is my main complaint with his writing. “Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.” Reportedly, this is one of Franzen’s rules for writing fiction. I say to him, “Try it.” In the story we get our information from an omniscient third person, and from the wife’s written autobiography, in which she cannot bring herself to write in the first person: “The autobiographer … has been trying very hard to write these pages in the first and second pages. Although she believes herself to be genuinely changed … she still can’t let go of a voice she found when she had nothing else to hold on to, …” (pg.507.) A third “voice” we readers hear is the inner voice of the wife, the Autobiographer (Patty), and the husband, Walter. The problem is, I can’t tell which is which, and am left with the notion that what I am being told is simply what is inside the mind of Franzen, his irresistible inner voice. He paints a distressing picture of America, or more accurately – Americans. Not that I don’t agree. I find bits and pieces of myself and people I know throughout the novel. It’s good stuff.

My take-away from Franzen’s perspective is, in his own words (the omniscient narrator): “ He [Walter] didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know how to live … There was no controlling narrative: he seemed to himself a purely reactive pinball in a game whose only objective was to stay alive for staying alive’s sake.” (pg. 318.) In other words, Life sucks. This is the perspective of nearly every character. The second theme is that of reproachfulness—a word he uses over and over and over again. The characters and the narrator take the position that family dynamics are mostly responsible for the troubles of people, and there is a deterministic effect of parenting, and that the father is the dominant purveyor of stressors, be they ill-humor, anger, alcoholism, resources, and on and on. The world is hierarchal and patriarchal. Most men are “shitheads” or “dickheads.” Intimacy and tenderness are almost non-existent. Sex is at best a tool, at worst, a weapon. Women are neurotics in need of medication. As Walter’s son, Joey, puts it, “… if he eliminated from his pool of prospects every interesting college-age girl with some history of depression, he would be left with a very small pool indeed.” (pg. 395.) Indeed! From a point of view of personality—powerful men are either narcissists or antisocials, and weak men are passive-aggressive cultists, paranoids, survivalists, and other such “ists.” Women are passive dependents. (Except for one – a non-American, who Franzen kills off.) Both men and women are angry, ignorant, or stupid, save the powerful narcissists and antisocials (Indeed!) and use alcohol and/or drugs as an escape—a defense against despair. Everyone is a victim, helpless against the forces of nature and circumstance.

So why the title “Freedom.” Because of the birds? (The plot revolves around Walter’s quest to save birds.) Because of the struggle to be free from … ? [One must be free from before one can be free to – In the words of the character Richard Katz – “… fuck up your life whatever way you want to.” (pg.361.)] Franzen can be brutal.

I really liked this book. I’ve never read anyone that captures hostile dialogue better than Franzen. He’s got that down. It was there in the "Corrections"; and is predominant in Freedom. It’s a troubling book because it is so accurate. Franzen has done what a writer should—say something that matters, say something that disturbs the reader. I think his next book will be even better. It’ll come out about 2020, methinks, and just might be written in the first person.


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