Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review: Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

If I were one to include catchy subheads on my reviews here at Free Range Reading, I suppose the one I’d write for Freedom would read: “Lots of golden rings to be found in this big pile of shit.” If you’ve already read the novel, then you catch my reference immediately. I’m of course speaking of the section where Joey, the 19-year-old son of the Berglund family, accidentally swallows the wedding ring from his clandestine marriage to girlfriend Connie and eventually needs to wade through his own feces in order to retrieve it. For Franzen, this grotesque scene is a broader metaphor for the strife that each major character in Freedom goes through: to root through the effluence of their lives’ mistakes and bad choices to find something of value and permanence.

Unfortunately, this metaphor also sums up what it’s like trying to read Freedom itself: there is so much to admire and marvel at in this book – but man, do you ever need to wade through a lot of crap to get to it.

There have been countless summations of Freedom already posted to the web, so I won’t waste time doing another one here. But the story centers around the Berglund family: Walter, the soft-hearted father driven to near insanity by his obsession with overpopulation; Patty, the jock-turned-liberal mother who has an affair on Walter with his best friend, the intermittent rock star Richard Katz; Joey, the son who forsakes his family’s values to move in with his girlfriend Connie and her right-wing family; and Jessica, the relatively level-headed one of the crew who struggles in a low-paying job as a literary fiction editor. The novel is broken up into sections told through various points of view and through various literary devices. Franzen gives us gobs and gobs of background information on several key characters, including Patty, Walter and Richard. While some of these details and side plots are interesting, the majority of them feel like filler and a distraction from the main point of the book.

Indeed, I’m willing to go on record and say that the first 180 pages or so of Freedom could have been cut out completely, or at least substantively chopped down. My issue with this early section is its near-pointless focus on the character of Eliza, Patty’s mentally ill college roommate. Eliza’s sole function in the story, it seems, is to propel Patty into a disastrous infatuation with Richard that eventually leads to Patty deciding to marry Walter instead. Eliza plays no other role beyond that, and her involvement in the subsequent sections of the book is virtually nonexistent. Yet Franzen lingers on Eliza’s character too long, going into far more detail about her life and drug use and (frankly, less-than-believable) obsession with young Patty’s athletic prowess than we as readers really need. I nearly gave up on the novel during this section, and was not surprised when Eliza was summarily dumped from the narrative about a quarter of the way through. But the fact that she is points to Franzen’s inability do anything substantial with her once he created her.

There are other areas like this as well. The lengthy section about Walter’s relationship with his brothers could have been scaled back, as could the background on the middle years of Richard’s music career. There were just too many parts to Freedom that felt like they should have been excised from the manuscript after the first draft.

Now having said all that, the parts of Freedom that are brilliant are truly on par with the very best of American literature. Franzen has a preternatural talent for balancing his themes across multiple characters and multiple subplots until they achieve a kind of freakish literary Zen. In this case, it’s the endless, fascinating play on concepts of personal freedom: from Joey’s early capitalistic endeavours selling jewelry at Connie’s school to Patty's disastrous “creative writing” project and Walter’s bootless attempts to help an endangered bird through corporate means, this novel is constantly, endlessly about the boundaries and limitations of our own ambitions inside a so-called “free country.”

Indeed, Franzen shows tremendous force in revealing the double-edged sword of freedom and what it means at the dawn of the 21st century. It’s mostly a cynical view: that capital-F freedom ultimately means the sacrificing of your children’s future for your own present. This is played out again and again in Freedom. The worst embodiment of this is Patty herself. She constantly undermines and reproaches her children for her own in-the-moment gains, much like her own mother did to her. This is a very personal example of how corrosive freedom can be. Franzen also examines it on a much larger, more political scale: i.e. the Iraq War and the shady profiteering that was part and parcel of it (profiteering that Joey himself – improbably, I felt – gets wrapped up in.)

I think there is a brilliant novel locked somewhere inside Freedom, and it’s too bad that Franzen hadn’t worked harder to liberate (excuse the pun) it from the masses and masses of what ultimately feels like extraneous pages. The gold rings of this book would have shone that much more brightly had he wiped away a lot of the crap that surrounds them.

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