Franzen’s Freedom

This is a sneaky post I shouldn’t really be writing – I should be doing useful things in preparation for the start of term. But then this is a book I bought on impulse on the weekend, having heard such diversity of opinion over it that I could not resist. I’d never read Jonathan Franzen before, but he feels quintessentially American to me; he’s similar to so many American novelists, his troubled teens sounding like Tom Wolfe’s in I Am Charlotte Simmonds, his implosive marriages like Richard Yates’, his disaffected males like Don DeLillo’s, his snarky-witty tone a cross between David Foster Wallace and Philip Roth, and perhaps most of all he reminds me of Michael Chabon, without the literary flourishes. I don’t know about the stand-out artist of his generation, but he’s certainly a representative writer from smack bang in the middle of it.

Unsurprisingly, then, he takes his subject as contemporary America and the lives of the comfortably-situated middle classes. Freedom focuses on a family, Patty and Walter Berglund, who are politically correct, environmentally-aware, friendly, wholesome types, and their two outwardly admirable children, Jessica and Joey. Although in fact the image belies a much messier, darker reality shot through with disaffection and frustration. Assuming multiple narrative perspectives, Franzen deconstructs the family, following it through meltdown. If this sounds gloomy, it isn’t really; in its way, it is quite funny, even if the humour seems to encourage us to laugh at the characters rather than with them. But it is also very explanatory, very sharp, at times a tad preachy, and fierce in its politics.

To enter the narrative is to become caught up in a highly particular voice, eloquent and intelligent but emotionally cold, and one of the problems with this voice is that it is used across all the multiple perspectives, even though they include a supposedly autobiographical account (written in the third person!) and a great deal of free indirect style. In consequence, two things: the narrative is blanketingly homogenous, despite inhabiting a series of very different mentalities, and it is difficult to judge the characters. They all flow seamlessly out of Franzen’s voice, with no insertion of narrative distance – so is the intention to promote their ideology or to undermine it? It’s very unclear. I’m not saying that’s a problem, just that it’s unclear.

The emotional coldness is very interesting. When I think of the books I’ve read recently – Sarah Water’s The Night Watch, which will rip the beating heart from your body without the tiniest shred of sentimentality involved, Austen’s Emma with its pervasive, profound compassion, Orwell’s 1984 with its nightmarish darkness, it becomes all the clearer how far away Franzen stays from the murky depths and the scintillating highs of his characters’ experience. Take for instance the character of Patty Berglund, whose autobiographical account, written as I mentioned in a gender-neutral third person, makes up a fair chunk of the narrative. Something terrible happens to Patty in her adolescence, compounding a problematic childhood as the relatively stupid, sporty one in a family of eccentric creative types. This is the toxic root to her behavioural problems, but Franzen doesn’t want to get involved in what it really means for a woman to suffer terrifically low self-esteem. The emotional punch of anxiety, anguish, passion, possessiveness, these are irrelevant to the narrator. Patty’s story is flattened out, the incident forgotten, her ‘crimes’ no worse than any woman might commit in a dissatisfactory marriage and yet she is viewed with a jaundiced eye. Patty’s a messy person, but who isn’t? Without a vital emotional aura surrounding Patty’s story, it’s hard to know what to make of it, whether we should condemn or sympathise.

There are two possibilities here. One is that Franzen just can’t write women and I fear that banal explanation may be justified. The competitive rivalry between Patty’s husband Walter and his best friend, Richard Katz, is invested with much more authenticity and detail, far more beautifully and realistically described than Patty’s more dramatic experiences. And the narrative is dominated by the masculine imagination – evidenced by the preoccupations with politics and music. These are the jealously guarded province of the male writer – I have yet to see a woman write a political novel that is well received, or indeed to write about music in a technical or judgmental way, discussing what constitutes good taste. So I definitely get the hoo-hah that arose over the glowing reviews, as this is very much a book written by a boy. The emotions Franzen will do include competitiveness, ambition, pride, and the endless jostling for position of the would-be alpha male, all very testosterone-based.

The other possibility is more interesting. I’ve said before that this is a homogenous narrative, and it extends to the characters themselves. I’m intrigued by how much they all watch and police each other, ready and waiting to condemn any deviation from a certain ideal of personality. For instance, look at the way that transgression in this novel is such a timid and bloodless affair. The main agent for the dark side is Richard Katz, Walter’s best friend and resolutely non-mainstream musician. Katz doesn’t treat women well (surprise), takes drugs, can’t settle down and his punishment for all this is to record, by mistake, an album that’s a huge hit. To show the world what for, he returns to making roofing decks and (continues) being an insolent son of a bitch. Well, that’s truly awful, isn’t it? There seems so little possibility for the characters to be… different. Truly, madly, deeply different, radically different. They are all locked inside themselves and frustrated by the other characters in any attempt to break out. Is this what the combination of the cult of the individual and liberal humanism has brought us to? An ideology of normalization, in which everyone belonging to this particular class must conform themselves to a straitjacket of identity, permanently optimistic, achieving, attractive, do-gooding? It’s no wonder if altering an economy based on growth seems impossible – growing oneself, wanting more, wanting better, is one of the few desires that the characters are actually permitted.

So for me, the emotional coldness may on this reading be a kind of social commentary on the reduced range of emotions that this layer of American society allows itself; that Franzen’s vision of his culture, however unwittingly, shows people who long to change but cannot truly embrace a different way of being, because the longing to be ‘normal’ is too strong. In that case the freedom of the title is an ironic one. The characters cling to their idea of freedom but do not know how to live, do not know what to do with themselves, unsurprisingly when their existential range is so small. I’ve only once reviewed a book halfway through reading it (Lolita) and that didn’t go too well, so I’ll have to eat my words if something surprising happens in the next 200 pages. But that’s the view so far.


31 thoughts on “Franzen’s Freedom

  1. I have this on my shelf waiting its turn. Interesting about the voice and your note of how masculine the book is. I will await your final verdict to hear if it all comes to any purpose. Too bad the UK cover is so drab looking, the U.S. cover is colorful and pretty.

  2. Stefanie – I’m concerned that this review sounds too critical – it’s a very engaging novel and I’m enjoying it. I guess the problem is that I’ve read too many reviews, and I’m approaching this reading as much from them as from the book itself. The controversy that surrounds books is fun, and I certainly wanted to read this one because I know people who both love and hate it, but of course that does put me in top-gear analytic mode in my reception. I enjoy that, but others may not, and consider me presumptuous to discuss Franzen’s view of America when I am not an American! But I hope not as it’s only one reading and naturally up for debate.

    The cover is actually nicer in reality because it is sort of silkily shiny, but that doesn’t come across at all in the image, alas.

  3. Coming from my novice position in the craft of writing, I kept thinking ‘Show don’t tell’ as I read it. JF does a lot of the telling and not all that much of the showing. Though having said that, his dialogue is so very good and makes up for some of that lack.

    I’ve read criticism elsewhere that Patty’s not a fully-fledged character and I’d agree with you and them. She only comes to life when she’s mending things with her family, and then only half-so.

    I’d say as far as men who write women well, Nick Hornby’s far ahead of Franzen.

  4. I find myself getting resistant to Great American Novels – they all blur into one, whereas the variety of great American novels is incredible. Why do these men all think they have to (or can) summarise such a diverse and contradictory nation?

    Political novels (widely defined) by women. There would be more if more women were in politics, I suspect:
    Atwood – lots, but most obviously The Handmaid’s Tale: Iran + Reaganism.
    Doris Lessing – some are wonderful, some are astonishingly dull, but politics are at the core of so many of her texts.
    Stowe – Uncle Tom’s Cabin
    Eliot, Middlemarch and Felix Holt
    McCarthy – The Group
    Gillian Freeman – The Leader
    Gwyneth Jones’s Bold As Love series (and perhaps Kairos)
    Marge Piercy, Dance the Eagle to Sleep
    P D James, Children of Men
    Daphne du Maurier, Rule Britannia (OK, it’s rubbish, but intriguing: the US invades the UK and the toffs lead the resistance)
    Michelle Cliff, No Telephone to Heaven
    Colmore, Suffragette Sally.
    Rosamund Lehman?
    Rebecca West?
    Marilyn French, The Women’s Room
    Tepper, The Gate to Women’s Country

    I’ll stop there. I think there are a lot more novels by women which deal with politics than there are politics novels by women, if that makes sense.

  5. Charlotte – I can’t imagine being able to write from a man’s perspective so it must be incredibly hard to cross gender like that. And I have to confess I have never read Nick Hornby, although now you have made me interested! And I really agree with you that the dialogue is excellent. The show don’t tell thing was very very interesting, coming from the land of Strunk and White. What would the litopians say? 😉

    Plashing Vole – never a truer word said – there is extraordinary diversity in American literature, and spot on that there are more political novels (particularly gender politics) written by women than novels in political settings. That is a fantastic list. Doris Lessing is a very good call, as is Atwood (and French rolls up a commendable third for me). Several authors there I don’t know (Freeman, Gwyneth Jones, haven’t read that P D James, Tepper), and I will check them all out. Thank you – this is just marvellous and I am very impressed!

  6. I was so interested to read your thoughts on this. The media frenzy over Freedom has been hard for me to resist, but I really didn’t think much of The Corrections, and every review of Freedom that hasn’t been fawning has made Freedom sound a lot like The Corrections, so I’m continuing to dig in my heels! I found Franzen’s characterization in The Corrections too shallow and, frankly, mean-spirited. It’s been too long since I read it for me say for sure, but a lot of what you say here rings true to my memory of The Corrections.

  7. “eloquent and intelligent but emotionally cold”. This is exactly the experience I had when I tried to read Franzen’s first novel, The Corrections. I never finished. I do plan to read that one again and read Freedom, but I might wait out this current Franzen frenzy. I’m interested in his critique of American society, but wary of the tone. I prefer my criticism to be sharply, bitingly funny. Is Freedom at all funny?

  8. Pingback: Reading Franzen’s Freedom » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

  9. Teresa – Yes, I can see exactly where you’re coming from. I think that Franzen has taken immense pains with characterisation in this novel, but the kind of people he portrays are locked into their own perspectives to the point of obsession, and that makes them very inflexible, often unsympathetic – although I think the women are consistently less sympathetic than the men. Mean-spirited is certainly an adjectivethat could be applied to some of them. On the other hand,it is a very interesting novel and one that asks its readers to think, which is a big plus for me. I’ll be intrigued to know whether you decide to read this or not!

    Charlotte and Plashing Vole – I completely agree! I read it back at the very start of the year and loved it. I think the ending rather shows the difficulty women have entering the political arena…

    Verbivore – yes it IS funny, and definitely in a sharp, biting and satirical sort of way. Andat the same time I am not sure how much tenderness Franzen has for his characters. Some (Walter, Richard) fare better than others (Patty, Joey). I would love to know what you make of it!

    Lilian – I’m wondering to what extent it’s that old Brechtian thing – to think during the experience of art, you need to be a bit cold and distanced. And then again, it may just be that Franzen is a cold fish. It’s tricky to tell! But I certainly have been provoked to think by the book.

  10. I’m still not sold on this book – despite the great endorsement from Obama himself! I loved the part where you contrasted the narrator’s ’emotionally cold’ voice with the voices of the other authors you’ve read recently- such an apt, succinct summary of four extremely complex books in one paragraph. Now that’s tight writing!

  11. I read and loved The Corrections a while back, so I’m curious about this one, although I don’t know when I’ll get to it. I didn’t find The Corrections emotionally cold, but I think others did, so that’s probably a more personal response. The idea of characters with a limited emotional range is interesting, and I wonder how I will respond to it when I read it.

  12. At the risk of mentioning another white male writer, I find it surprising that Richard Ford is not mentioned in the same breath as Franzen. As a Brit, I find Ford is by far the best of the “Great American” authors – I have no problems with Franzen – and am about to read Freedom – but Books like Fords’s The Lay of the Land and Independence Day are better!

  13. I found the book to be a very engaging read, but I had huge problems with it as well … however, overall I have recommended it numerous times for the sheer sports-car smooth ride of the prose, and the truly extraordinary examination of a complex friendship between two men. The obvious political agenda was ridiculous, IMO; and I think you’re right that he doesn’t know how to write women. But the scope and ambition of the book are remarkable, and pretty cohesive. I think the ending is remarkable, though the last third of the book dragged for me and I found much of it to be heavy-handed. I’ll be interested to see what you think of the ending.

  14. Baker’s daughter – thank you for that lovely comment! You made my day with that.

    Dorothy – I think you’d really like this book, because 1) you loved his previous one, and by all accounts it is similar but better and 2) it has environmental issues at its heart that I know would interest you. Having finished it, I can say that the characters get to exercise their full emotional range by the end, but there’s still a sense of limitation that operates over the society of the novel, an inability to envisage real difference. Well, I’ll be really interested to know what you make of it.

    David – I completely agree that the portrait of the relationship between the two men is one of the very best things. But oh dear, I didn’t like the ending. After having produced a novel of Rolls-Royce realism, to sink into a morass of Reliant Robin happy endings like that, even for the most irredeemable characters!! My sense of the real, tenacious, intransigent reality of negativity was astonished. But I’m recommending it too, because there is just SO much to discuss in it, and the prose is consistently great. I like a book that tries, regardless of everything else; that’ll do for me.

  15. You know, I think I liked the ending because what Patty did is exactly the kind of thing I would do, and have done — although more metaphorically — toward people who had no reason whatsoever to forgive me. And I think I liked the hopefulness of it because I see that around me in some people’s lives … that after making a terrible muddle, they find grace in the very mess they’ve created … and for me, just where I am in my own head, I like that idea, of salvaging grace from chaos, even if doing so is a little contrived. To me as a reader, the choices the characters made at the end of the book were the only real freedom they had … they were, as you rightly observe, inflexible and locked into their identities and lives in ways that were crippling and rigid. In a way, I think the choice to invest in the very traps they were in … was what would perhaps set them free of those traps and allow them to redefine their constriction as useful boundaries.

    But then again, since the very thing I described above is my own work to align myself with my own life, of course I want to see that everywhere I look. 🙂

  16. David – and since what I want to see above all else is change, that’s what I privilege. 🙂 Ah it is so true what they say, that reading is following the paths of our unconscious desires. I can quite see the pleasure that’s available from the redemptive ending – and why shouldn’t Franzen choose to give that to his readers? And the character’s decisions to redefine their constrictions has been used in different circumstances under the heading of parodic redeployment – so for instance, gays appropriating the term ‘gay’ and using it without negative connotations. And such rewrites can be empowering. Tell you what, though, the part that got to me was when Patty (whose reconciliation with her family was well done, I thought) arranges for the distribution of the money, and both her awful sisters finally got their acts together. Too unrealistic! I cried. I have no idea why that really grated – I could take all the other happy endings but not those ones and they sort of contaminated the rest for me. Why? It undoubtedly says more about me than the book. 🙂

  17. This is actually the first thing I’ve read about this book–I’ve managed to avoid all the discussion surrounding Franzen and his new book. I seem to have missed a whole swathe of American writers–Chabon is the only one you mention that I’ve read (I’m very particular about reading books from a female perspective, and hopefully a true perspective), but I need to expand my horizons. I don’t think you have been overly critical at all–you actually make me even more curious to read this book–will have to get in line, however, since everyone else seems to have the same idea at the moment.

  18. Danielle – yes! It is all hype at the moment. But this is an interesting book, very easy to read and with lots of ideas. I do think you’d enjoy it. But I also read more women authors than men and let’s not begin on the list of American writers I haven’t read a word of! But i’m glad if you think I don’t sound too critical. I wanted to critique the book but not criticise it, if you see what I mean!

    Baker’s daughter – that is just a hilarious story! I can’t believe anyone went to all that trouble to nick his glasses – honestly, the Brits are so disrespectful of the arts (but sometimes in comic ways). But that article also led me on to read about the recall of the first UK edition of Freedom due to the typesetters error in printing the wrong version of the novel!!! I have one of those first editions and I did notice a few typos but thought nothing of it as most books contain some. I will keep mine in case it becomes a collector’s item a century hence. But oh the publishers must be having fifty fits over the waste of time and money and resources. That is one huge horrible error.

  19. litlove: I thought your review was spot-on about the narrative voice in Freedom. Patty’s autobiography is just not written in her voice; the observations and the descriptions are all in Franzen’s voice.

    I managed to avoid reading any reviews and even the back cover before reading the novel. It just ruins it for me.

  20. Dan – thank you very much! I came over to read your review and very much liked the way you drew out the competitiveness between the characters – completely agree with you there and it was a very well done part of the novel. As to reading about a book in advance, I don’t blame you at all. The essential thing is to know your self and what you need, reading pleasure is important and not to be messed with.

  21. litlove: You’re right that the joy of the reading experience is the most important thing.

    I also appreciated your mention of how the teens and twenty-somethings in Freedom recall the voices in Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. I really don’t know whether American twenty-somethings really talk that way, so I have to take Wolfe and Franzen as authoritative.

    I remain somewhat ambivalent about Freedom. What Franzen does well, he does very well: he puts ordinary middle-class liberal people under the microscope with uncanny accuracy and contemporary references (which read great now, but may later date the novel). Yet there appears to be something superficial about it; maybe because the characters themselves seem somewhat superficial. But maybe this is what we have become?

  22. Dan – That was exactly how I felt about the Franzen – was this truly a representative slice of American life, or was it particularly his perspective, his idea of what the average middle-class liberal would look like? It was interesting to me because ever since I’ve been blogging I’ve read more American literature than ever before, and had the pleasure of getting to know a number of Americans – to the extent that I forget we all come from different countries. And then Franzen’s novel made me feel the significant cultural differences – there was no way he could have been portraying the British. Not that we’re not tormented in some ways and superficial in others and unwilling above all else to change. But somehow the qualities got played out in a very different way. But there is a dimension to Franzen’s writing, it’s…. hmm, I suppose I feel it’s a bit glib, like he doesn’t necessarily challenge himself over who his characters are, what they are capable of, whether they might not turn out to be surprising in the end.

  23. This post (and your blog) are what make personal blogs better than sliced bread – tasty individual pieces served without going stale. Great job!

    Freedom is good, not great. It’s good in the way warm socks are welcomed on cold nights; but not great in the way that socks will never be couture.

    Two passages – last section, four pages apart – make the book better and more valuable than any other form of entertainment:

    “… and her forehead, when he kissed it, was colder than any just universe could have allowed such a young person’s forehead to be. The coldness entered him through his lips and didn’t leave. What was over was over. His delight in the world had died, and there was no point in anything.”

    and …

    “And so he stopped looking at her eyes and started looking into them, returning their look before it was too late, before this connection between life and what came after life was lost …”

    I’m going to go make a peanut butter sandwich now, hopeful that if there is a Great American Novel, I’ll hear about it first from Tales From The Reading Room 🙂

  24. Sean – just got in after a tough day at work and found your comment – thank you!! You’ve boosted my morale hugely! And love the comment about socks in relation to Freedom; so true. As for great American novel, well, my personal preference at the moment is for Richard Bausch. He seems accessible and lucid in the American tradition, but also emotionally profound.

  25. I took Patty’s emotional coldness to the own events of her life a sign of her depression. We know she is clinically depressed when she is writing it, using the journal as a kind of therapy, but she maintains that. I think the voices are a little too similar, but it didn’t really bother me as I was reading.

  26. Pingback: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen | Regular Rumination

  27. Have you ever thought about publishing an ebook or guest authoring on other sites?

    I have a blog based upon on the same topics you discuss
    and would really like to have you share some stories/information.

    I know my readers would value your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to send me an

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