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On Listening to Franzen’s Freedom

“To me, the point of a novel is to take you to a still place. You can multitask with a lot of things, but you can’t really multitask reading a book. You’re either reading a book or you’re not.” – Jonathan Franzen, “Jonathan Franzen on Author Videos & the Novel”

In August of last year, a publicist at Macmillan sent a 19-disc audiobook of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen to the newspaper office where I work. She included a handwritten note on Macmillan stationary, “I hope you’ll consider revisiting the pleasures of audiobook with FREEDOM.”

“Audiobooks are great when surfing the internet. You can surf; play games, chat, Skype … There are lots of other ways you can multitask with Audiobooks.” – Jia Hunter, “Multitask Away With Audiobooks”

“The review will be, like, about folding laundry while listening to Freedom, or taking a shit while listening to Freedom, or being on Facebook while listening to Freedom,” I said to my editor. He nodded, mumbled, “Clever,” and made a note in his daily planner.

My wife rolled her eyes when I told her about the review. “Always with this clever shit,” she said.

“And how are you going to take notes when you’re wiping your ass? And how are you going to quote from an audiobook if you’re not taking any notes?”

myeditor:   yeah

no quotes is fine i guess

you’re going to slam him right?

me: that’s the idea

“New advances in technology have bought with it the evolution of the MP3 player as well as audiobooks. Never before has there been a time when it has been so easy to learn and absorb information and news while performing other various tasks.” – Jia Hunter, “Multitask Away With Audiobooks”

I started Freedom in the morning on the toilet, but I could only sit there for so long. I drove to the grocery store and listened to it near the vegetables. When Patti recalls being raped as a teenager, trying to tell her parents, trying to get them to listen to her, I was in the cereal aisle. I had my hand on a box of Grape Nuts for a long time – I don’t how long – before I dropped the box.

IMPORTANT CHARACTER NAMES IN FREEDOM FROM MEMORY

Walter, Eco-Friendly Patriarch

Patti, The Desperate Housewife

Their son, The Republican One

Their daughter, The Boring One

Richard Katz, Get it?

Walter’s Secretary, The Not White One

Texas Oilman, Boss Hogg

Conor Oberst, Yeah, that guy

“I was puzzled, and more than a little aggrieved, that nobody seemed able to discern this simple, clear idea in the text. How willfully stupid, I thought, these media people were!” – Jonathan Franzen, “A Word About This Book,” How to Be Alone

In the office, I told my editor that I wanted to get the plot wrong in my review, to misapply some crucial point, to be willfully stupid. “He likes to be right, I think, so I shouldn’t deny him,” I said.

The Grape Nuts thing kept happening. I stood in a doorway, my hand on the jamb, until someone tapped my shoulder. I sat in the driver’s seat of my car, forgot to start it.

Freedom was still playing while I laid on the couch that night, watching the local news on mute. The newscaster was narrating the novel, telling me about Richard Katz between clips of police cars flashing red and blue, a shopping mall bathed in florescent light.

My wife went to bed while I was still on the couch, closed the door.

We’re not actually married. We told her parents that we had eloped and they sent us kitchen appliances, some money, a couch. That was a couple years ago. We thought that this trick meant we weren’t buying into a domestic facade, that we were smarter than that.

Another way of saying that would be: “We didn’t want to be characters in a Jonathan Franzen novel.”

“Identification is usually supposed to be largely unconscious: a reader may be aware that she likes a given character, but not that she actually see that character as an alter ego, a version of her, or a projection of her aspirations for herself.” – Wikipedia, “Identification (Literature)”

She walked back into the living room when light was beginning to seep through the windows. “You’ve been up all night?”

I made a pot of coffee and she said, “What’s it about?” I told her that it was about a woman whose husband won’t fuck her the way she needs to be fucked, that he’s too vanilla-liberal and she doesn’t know how to say what she needs and that there are other plots, too, and they’re mostly about people not being able to say or know what they want or need.

“We could listen to the rest of it together,” I said. She rolled her eyes, the standard response, and sat down on the couch anyway. “Fuck it,” she said. “Sure.”

I wanted to ask her if she thought of me more as Walter or more as Richard. I wanted to ask her what it was like when she thought about my old best friend, the one she used to fuck. I wanted to ask her about the comparisons she would make in an autobiography, to tell me now so that we would stop pretending to not think about them.

“Audiobooks are great for learning while doing mundane house chores or other forms of chores like guttering, painting, cleaning out the shed, moving furniture or the dreaded mowing … listening to audiobooks allows you to focus on the positive audiobook not the negative mundane chore you are doing.” – Jia Hunter, “Multitask Away With Audiobooks”

After a few hours on the couch, she said, “What about your gimmick? Don’t you need to be taking a shit or weeding the garden or something?”

“I can just make that up, right? Like I can just say I heard this while I was doing that and it’ll work just the same.”

“Cheater.”

I missed all the parts that we talked over.

“Audiobooks can now be enjoyed while exercising. It doesn’t matter whether it’s jogging in the park, riding your bike to work, pounding up and down on equipment in a gym or walking along a beach.” – Jia Hunter, “Multitask Away With Audiobooks”

I start trying to kiss her during a scene about Walter. “I should write about fucking while listening to Franzen,” I said. She brushed my hands away and said, “I thought you were going to make it up.”

The first time we had sex, she slapped me across the face, open palm. We fell in love quick. We used to take little key bumps in bed. She started keeping a knife on her bedside table in those months. “Just so we know it’s there,” she said.

We got fake-married and quit doing drugs. Quit having sex, too.

“Audiobooks are great for learning and studying at the same time. Audiobooks give you the ability to listen to study material and the freedom to take notes at the same time … Slow reader’s have a huge advantage as well as they are able to take more in while listening.” – Jia Hunter, “Multitask Away With Audiobooks”

“If you’re going to make it up, make up something more interesting. Tell them that I tied you up and put a ball gag in your mouth and that the safe word was ‘Freedom.’”

When you say ‘Freedom’ with a ball-gag in your mouth, it sounds like EEE-OMM, EEE-OMM.

“So, the ropes would be, like, a metaphor for marriage or domestic life or something?”

The republican son swallows his wedding ring and then searches through his shit for it. This is described in detail, his hands breaking the fecal matter carefully, anxiously. When she looked at me during this scene, I wondered if she was also reminded of our relationship.

“It’s just like what Franzen keeps hitting us over the head with, that our freedom is our bondage or whatever. So, bondage is the right metaphor right?”

“You’re saying that I should hit you in the head, too?”

“Relaxing and keeping hygienic at the same time … just lay back in a nice bubble filled bath, press play on the iPod … and the pressure is off the study and onto relaxing and cleaning.” – Jia Hunter, “Multitask Away With Audiobooks”

“The problem with Freedom” returns about 103,000 results on Google.

me:  there’s a problem

the Franzen book is good

myeditor:  really?

me:  yeah

i can still write that story though

it’ll just be, like, about how he’s right

or something

I wanted to tell her that maybe she was like Patti or maybe she was like Richard or maybe she was like Walter. I thought that if we could just figure out who were identifying with, that if we could just hold our breath and search through our shit for long enough, that something would turn up, that we could make it right.

I was wrong.

“You can also learn while sleeping with audiobooks … plug in the headphones and have a nice peaceful sleep while listening to your favourite audiobook.” – Jia Hunter, “Multitask Away With Audiobooks”

The editor calls me from his desk, “I don’t think we’re going to have room for the, uh, Franzen thing.”

I think I left the discs at her house when I moved out. I don’t know how Freedom ends.

* * *

Wyatt Williams is a contributing writer at Creative Loafing and editor of Joyland South.

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