I just finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Even though yet another blog post about the literary sensation of the moment is not contributing much to the collective forward motion of our cultural understanding, I can’t NOT spend just a little time talking about the book.
The reviews have been unabashedly glowing, so much so that another storm system developed around claims of gender bias in book reviews and asking why it is that we (all of us) seem more interested in male writers than female writers. I don’t mean to dismiss these questions. They are similar to the concerns raised by the Guerrila Girls regarding the visual arts back in the 80s, and increased awareness of the (mostly) invisible bias favoring male painters and artists resulted from their efforts. But that isn’t my topic today. The book is.
I loved Freedom, and I’ll tell you why. Or at least some of the reasons why I couldn’t put it down.
1. Franzen captures the peculiar confusion and complexity of life since 9/11, most of it under the very unfortunate watch of Bush/Cheney. It is the time capsule portrait of life in the US in the aughts. Poignantly so.
2. He steps into Big Themes with bravado. And even though he doesn’t handle all of them with mastery, he’s not a fool and stays afloat. So here is a story that deals with relationships, parenthood, family, heritage, depression, politics, liberal and conservative blindspots, ecology, save the world-itis, fidelity, money, misuse of power, war, class warfare, suburbanism, honesty, loyalty and forgiveness, among many others.
3. His character development does not feel gender-skewed. His men and his women are complexly drawn and not cartooned. Sometimes they are endearing, sometimes infuriating, sometimes desperately familiar in their human frailty. But my allergic reaction to the ease with which many male writers repeatedly miss the mark on female sensibilities was not triggered once.
4. His protagonists, like all of us, are cripplingly flawed. In fact I felt no sympathy or attraction to his female protagonist until the last 100 pages. But by god you want them to figure it out. Desperately. I wanted each of them to measure out the black holes in their souls, put up some police barricade tape and steer everybody else clear of the sure disaster that would ensue should someone overstep the edge. The humanness of the story touched me deeply.
5. Franzen doesn’t preach. He doesn’t offer answers but reveals how complex every decision we make actually is. This book is about the question, How should we live? I would feel manipulated if he thought he had the answer to that, but I am moved by how much thought he has given to that question and incorporated that thinking into a beautifully written novel.
Excerpt from Freedom:
In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else’s children’s sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it. There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did your 240 sometimes not go into overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button? Was it better to offer panhandlers food, or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning? Had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer? What about a good Volvo mechanic? Did your 240 have that problem with the sticky parking-brake cable? And that enigmatically labeled dashboard switch that made such a satisfying Swedish click but seemed not to be connected to anything: what was that?
And thes two final paragraphs from Sam Tanenhaus’ review in the New York Times:
Franzen’s world-historical preoccupations also shape, though less delicately, his big account of the home front — the seething national peace that counterpoises the foreign war. Himself a confirmed and well-informed environmentalist, Franzen gives full voice to Walter’s increasingly extreme preachments on the subjects of overpopulation and endangered species. “WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET!” he declares at one point, in a rant that goes viral on the Internet as his dream sours into a nightmare vision of a land in which “the winners,” who own the future, trample over “the dead and dying and forgotten, the endangered species of the world, the nonadaptive.”
The apocalypse, when it comes, clears the way for a postlude, set in Minnesota, that is as haunting as anything in recent American fiction. In these pages, Walter, “a fanatic gray stubble on his cheeks,” seizes hold of the novel, and Franzen makes us see, as the best writers always have, that the only pathway to freedom runs through the maze of the interior life. Walter, groping toward deliverance, mourns “a fatal defect in his own makeup, the defect of pitying even the beings he most hated.” But of course it is no defect at all. It is the highest, most humanizing grace. And it cares nothing about power. Like all great novels, “Freedom” does not just tell an engrossing story. It illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author’s profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew.