I have qualms about contributing to the current hype around Franzen’s Freedom, the endless pop-noise which ironically is confronted in the book’s lakeside allegory; but I feel compelled to, having been so moved by the book, and apologize for attaching my name to this review.
Soon after a quick intro written in omniscient third person, the reader encounters a longish part (broken into 3 chapters, labeled as such) written by one of its characters Patty — and yet, this doesn’t feel like “meta-fiction,” or even the show off flourishes of an adroit author; it seems, while not essential, strangely relevant. The reader’s context, for those who know Franzen, is that he is weary of “difficult” fiction for its preoccupation with language and fragmented narrative/consciousness (he wrote a Harper’s article critical of William Gaddis’ infuriating/challenging techniques, yet strangely aligns himself with D.F. Wallace, also an instigator). So one asks, why the difficult-ish structure?
Franzen here stumbles upon a problem: voice. For continuity, Patty’s narration somewhat mimics Franzen’s, but the reader (at least I did), if we are to take Franzen’s conceit literally, is skeptical how a “non-writer” could write so “novelistically.” (James Wood, in How Fiction Works, a well-spirited book despite the didactic title, addresses this issue of authorial voice vs. a character’s — how the latter is an inextricable mouthpiece of the former, what he calls ‘free indirect style.’) Of course, we know this is a necessary, hopefully relevant measure which will augment the overall narrative.
Patty’s offering to the novel becomes essential when, back into Franzen’s third person omniscient account, the physical manuscript “collated” into the novel is actually integrated into the novel’s character’s lives, though, to my relief, not rhetorically like Barthe or Nabokov might have. This is a shocking moment which I cannot get into, for fear of spoilers, an incident which involves the triad of main characters, all of whom are irrevocably changed forever by it.
By this time, as with (sorry for the tiresome comparison) Tolstoy or Dickens, the characters are so fucking developed that the reader almost need not even continue reading, for they can viscerally feel (which is moral knowing) what each character will feel and how they will act, which I understand is the opposite of intellectual, but perhaps fiction’s place, if we have forgotten, is in the heart.
I cried at what happened at the end, because it was so bravely prosaic, almost trivial and boring: ridden with a fate that every human cannot escape, and hence, what every human can relate to, namely, the loss of love. To understand this book, you just need parents, a crush, a relationship, kids of your own, grandparents, neighbors, a job, a house, a life — to have fucked over, to have been fucked over. Franzen’s complexity is not linguistic, but moral. The realism is emitted with such verity, the words seem to breathe on the page. It’s as if he is not there, only the transcribed world at large.
The idea[l][ism] behind the “Great American Novel” is one that is socially cognizant of its time, and Franzen does well to include all the biggies of our contemporary plight: Israel/Palestine; rape, feminism; the Bush Iraqi war; Jews/Gentiles; gentrification; socioeconomic class; wall street fallout and recession; corporate yuppies and artist bohemians; liberals vs. conservatives; racism; the Environment; etc, etc. (he even awkwardly mentions Twitter in the last few pages, like a swansong tweet). I found these parts less interesting than “the story,” and almost annoyed by Franzen’s presumptive “responsibility” in documenting our most recent decade for his classic novel, though to give him the benefit of doubt, he has said to have been so angry at the world that it came out.
By the middle of the novel, the word “freedom” is mentioned sporadically yet consistently, in many different contexts: free-market economic freedom, religious freedom, democratic freedom, marital freedom, sexual freedom, (even cat/bird freedom, which serves as a grand metaphor), and most gravely, the existential freedom to fuck up your life — which will be explained by Patty in her crushing account. Freedom, for Franzen, is a formidable thing, a uniquely American thing which leads to grave consequence when not properly employed. It is, in this book, a bad word.
Franzen’s greatest asset is the moral clarity with which his characters are rendered; a tone often misinterpreted as smug, but I think it’s just the opposite. Franzen is humble enough to not have “style.” His world, however earnest and thoughtfully written, is almost just a journalistic account of ours — how we speak, how we feel, the mistakes we make. His novels are indebted to us, his own voice somewhat orphaned in the background. This is the mark of a great writer.
It’s not “cool” to love a book which will be on Oprah’s book club (incidentally cited in the snippet preceding this post) — a book that does nothing for the avant-garde (if such a thing does or should even exist anymore) — which is what got Franzen into trouble the first time around with Oprah. Freedom, per the incorrigible character Richard Katz (think “dick/cats”), is ultimately an indictment against “cool,” so let’s all not be cool together and read this brilliant, brave, and generous book.