Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Purchased at Owl's Nest Books

While I bought my copy of Freedom shortly after its release in August, the tsunami of ecstatic reviews, promotional articles and phoney controversies that preceded its arrival in the mailbox caused me to set it aside when it did show up. I had enjoyed The Corrections back in 2001 but found myself in the muddled middle with my reaction. I certainly liked it more than the considerable number of readers who hated it, but also thought it unworthy of the glowing praise (and awards) it attracted from other quarters. And while I remember some scenes from it, I’d have to pick up the volume again now to remind myself what it was really about.

All of which suggested to me that Franzen’s new book is what I characterize as a “holiday” read, one of those longish, plot-driven books to take along that are challenging enough to fill up hour-long chunks of reading, but not so compelling as to demand continued reading when other attractions beckoned. Since Mrs. KfC and I were planning a mini-vacation in snowy Lake Louise pre-Christmas, it seemed the right kind of book to save for the trip. After a wonderful three days there this week, which allowed completion of about two-thirds of the 562 pages, I am congratulating myself on the wisdom of my strategy.

I again find myself in the muddled middle. Freedom is not nearly as good — nor as deeply thought-provoking — as some of the laudatory reviews would like it to be. Neither is it as atrocious as some of the negative found it (I suspect they come from both unrealistic expectations and in reaction to the over-enthusiasm). It is an enjoyable and entertaining read, features interesting characters, has some pungent observations (but they come in scattered scenes not the over-arching wisdom that some found) and, perhaps most tellingly, was easy to put down when the winter mountain scenery or a good dinner was available as an alternative.

I suspect anyone who is contemplating reading Freedom already knows the elements of the plot, but here is a brief summary. The central characters are Walter and Patty Berglund, residents of St. Paul, Minnesota who kind of fell into marriage at a young age, followed almost immediately by family raising. Walter was an attorney at 3M, but not a very good one so he morphed into the community relations and philanthropy function, where he could develop his vaguely leftish interest in the environment and semi-unpopular causes (over-population is his lifelong obsession). Patty was a promising university basketball player at the University of Minnesota until blowing her knee. She’d chosen Minnesota to escape her oppressive upscale parents in New York — her father has a law practice in White Plains, her mother is a Democrat assemblywoman in Albany — and was content to produce two children and devote her life to her kids and restoring their Victorian house. This idyll is falling apart as the book opens.

Franzen’s continuing underlying theme is that whatever your definition of “freedom” might be, it is going to come with its share of challenges, disappointments and disasters. To make that work, he introduces a largish cast of supporting characters, most of whom demand significant licence from the reader to accept as real portrayals — Walter’s best friend, Richard Katz, is a handsome, struggling, drug-using alternative musician, Patty’s university career is disrupted by an obsessive adoring fan. As the central couple moves on, relatives, their children, a Texas oilman, a beautiful assistant and assorted others all get introduced to help the story along — and provide platforms for Franzen to launch elements of his wide-ranging critique of American society in the first decade of the 21st century.

He also plays with structure to make that easier for the author (and to an extent, the reader). If you are one of those book buyers who settles into a chair at the store to test a prospective purchase, the first 26 pages of this book are like an executive summary and the perfect length for an in-store read. Be forewarned, however, that (at least for me) it is the best writing in the book. (John Self at the Asylum called it an “overture” which is an even better description — if you aren’t acquainted with the plot of the book, he also does a much more complete job of describing it than you will find here.)

That is followed by about 160 pages of Patty’s “autobiography”, Mistakes Were Made (Composed at Her Therapist’s Suggestion), which is a handy way of getting the rest of the disruptive aspects of the back story into play. The remainder of the book comes in a more conventional form with chapters told from the point of view of Walter/Patty, their son Joey and the often physically absent, but always thought of, Katz (yes, he, not Walter, was Patty’s first choice).

What is effective with this rather convoluted approach is that it does create opportunities for Franzen to throw his daggers — Bush/Cheney, MTR (that’s shorthand for Mountain Top Removal coal mining), self-serving philanthropy, corrupt U.S. companies operating in Iraq, the harmful results of indulgent parenting, the desctructive impact of house cats on bird species are just a few of the incredibly wide range of targets. I was frequently reminded of my experience in reading Ian McEwan’s Solar earlier this year — many of the vignettes in both books were very, very well done but the overall impression was comparable to sampling a not very good buffet that featured scores of different dishes, many of which turned out to be not very good at all.

What is also good is that Franzen’s style carries all this along at a perfectly reasonable pace. There are no quotes included in this review because he is not a writer who lends himself to quotes — short ones would look unfairly glib (he is exceptionally good at the quick phrase), longer ones would simply show that he is more than adept at stringing them together. You can open the book at almost any page (although particularly in the first 26 pages) and what you see is what you will get throughout the book. It flows at a very consistent pace.

Certainly, as someone who is living through this period of North American history (and Minnesota is the most “Canadian” of American states) and did spend three years of the book’s time frame living in Pennsylvania (next door to West Virginia, which does feature in the book), Franzen is often perceptive about the foibles of modern America — heck, even the mortgage bubble features in the latter part of the book.

The biggest problem while reading the book is that all of it — not just the book as a whole, but even many of the episodes — is simply too long. By about page 400, patience with the liberties the author was granting himself (in a novel that all too frequently explores the downside of “liberty” as a driving value) was wearing thin and there were still 160 pages to go.

And sex is almost as consistently present a feature as the consequences of liberty/freedom. All three major male characters have issues — Walter is confused by it, son Joey and Richard Katz are obsessed by it. Franzen treats sex very mechanically which starts out by being mildly annoying but his constant return to the theme, without much variation, became very tedious for me. And I suspect many female readers would substitute “crude and chauvanistically offensive” for my “tedious”.

As I said at the start, the result when the last page was turned was much like my reaction to The Corrections — reading the book was just fine, but there is no way that it makes my list of Great American Novels and I have no desire to return for a second read to contemplate the deeper thoughts that I might have missed the first time. Like the earlier book, I suspect in a few years I will remember some episodes with considerable fondness, but have trouble describing the overall work.

Indeed, I would offer two comparisons that also frequently came to mind while reading the book. Franzen is like Tom Wolfe in the sweeping panorama of his take on America — he is simply not as good as Wolfe when it comes to the overall picture that emerges as a result. And for a portrayal of modern excess, Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges takes on the same subject with better results in half the number of pages.

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26 Responses to “Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen”

  1. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin, thank you for such an insightful take on this book. Erica Wagner cited one of the purposes of a review could be for the reader who may not want to read a book but would still like to read about it, and I am increasingly convinced that this is the case for me and Freedom. Having read Privileges, which I enjoyed a great deal I think you have finally let me off the Freedom hook for which I thank you … plenty more books waiting.

  2. Colette Jones Says:

    I wasn’t going to bother with Freedom until someone commented on The Review Show that an American would need to have lived abroad for this to really make sense to them. That intrigued me (as an American abroad for 20 years – that’s probably long enough) so I bought the book and hope to read it soon.

  3. leroyhunter Says:

    “Assorted others all get introduced to…provide platforms for Franzen to launch elements of his wide-ranging critique of American society in the first decade of the 21st century.”

    This nails my biggest reluctance to read Franzen’s doorstopper. Setting aside the hyperbole and contrasting aspersions that seem to be par for the course with any “big” book release these days, the sense I got from reviews was that Franzen has created a portmanteau of issues and state-of-the-nation angst disguised in the apparatus of a novel.

    Like you Kevin, I acknowledge Franzen’s facility in conveying these critiques, but I’m not sure I want 500 plus pages of ho-hum plot and characters to acheive that. It’s why I much prefer his non-fiction collections.

  4. Kerry Says:

    I had been looking forward to your reaction to Freedom. I applaud you on a very even-handed and accurate review. Franzen writes sentences well, but, for me, the longer he strings them together, the less interesting they become. The book is not painful to read, but it is not memorably good either.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    dgr: I think Erica Wagner is quite right — some of the most valuable reviews that I read tell me all I want or need to know about a book in 1,500 words or less. And save me both the time and money that can be better invested elsewhere. I don’t think you will miss much be missing Freedom.
    Colette: That’s a very interesting perspective — and I hope you will return with your thoughts once you have read the book. There is no doubt that Freedom is very current — and perhaps an angle that I missed (having lived here through the entire period) is that it captures what has changed in the last few decades. Personally, I don’t think that is the case (just as an example, those who experienced Reagan but not George W. probably can intuitively understand W. pretty well) but perhaps I am wrong.
    Leroy: Some of Franzen’s broadsides are laugh-out-loud funny, others are charmingly appropriate, but too many are either ho-hum and downright annoying. Your sense that the novel is mainly a platform for a litany of not-very-useful critical observations is consistent with my experience. That’s why I made the reference to Wolfe — I think in both Bonfire and A Man In Full he does a far better job of building a unified critical structure (that is both entertaining and thought-provoking). Franzen, on the other hand, seems to be firing an indiscriminately loaded shotgun at whatever he sees moving on the horizon.
    Kerry: I think you and I had a pretty similar reaction. The writing is just fine, but it doesn’t seem to say very much. And at the end of the reading we were left scratching our heads about just what the fuss is all about. It is snide on my part, but I suspect that’s why it makes a perfect Oprah book — it is long (to show it is serious), it has critical components (to show we are serious), but it doesn’t really say very much (which is a serious failing but lets us off the hook).

  6. nomadreader (Carrie) Says:

    Very well said. I think I enjoyed Franzen’s writing more, and while I’m glad I read it (it was a suitable companion while stuck in an airport with cancelled flights), but it not a great American novel, despite its strengths.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Carrie: Stuck in an airport with cancelled flights! Probably the perfect environment to read the novel (Mistakes Were Made would be a good description of the reader’s situation). I did not “not enjoy” it — but it did have the effect of becoming increasing frustrating in that each quarter of the book seemed to be less than the previous one.

  8. anokatony Says:

    Agreed, not the worst, but not the best either.

  9. Trevor Says:

    I also got this book when it was released but put it on hold until the hubbub died down. I knew that if I read it I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on it but would be responding to the praise and backlash instead. Now I’m not sure whether I will ever read it.

  10. Guy Savage Says:

    I’ve read so many reviews of this one. Like many readers, I was put off by the hype. Some of the reviews made me think that NO this was a book I would dislike, but others had me re-visiting the decision.

    I read your review twice and decided on the second go that no, I’ll stick with the pass. I’m still thinking about The Privileges.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: My guess, knowing your tastes, is that if you do read the book your constant comparison will be how much better a job Philip Roth does in whatever era of describing (and critiquing) America he happens to be dealing with in any chosen book. I’m not saying that to either encourage or discourage you from picking it up.

    Guy: You seem to have everything under control, so I’ll keep my mouth shut for now.

    I should note that both The NY Times and The Daily Beast put Freedom in their top five fiction titles for 2010 — then again, both lists also had Room on them as well. And I can’t even say that that illustrates I am parting ways — the other three titles on the Times list (Jennifer Egan, William Trevor and the New Yorker story collection) all rather interest me, based on past performance.

  12. Trevor Says:

    I hadn’t considered that I would compare this to Roth. I have considered that I might compare it to any number of well written commentary on the past decade, both in daily columns and in long features. Whenever a novel sounds like a rehash of grievance headlines I cringe. That’s one reason I cannot bring myself to read Lionel Shriver, though some respected readers quite like her. I’m sure I’m wrong in many of my prejudgments, but polemical novels lack nuance and, for me, sink under their own constructed gravity. I’ve gotten the impression I can expect some such from this book. Tough thing is, I quite liked the pieces from it that were published on The New Yorker — that keeps me tempted.

    • Lee Monks Says:

      I have the same issue with the latest Shriver. I don’t like writing that is primarily gearing up to a didactic marshalling of fictional troops. Not that that is necessarily what Shriver has done, it’s just my fear.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I liked the New Yorker excerpts as well and there are certainly a number of very good set pieces in the book — some of them had me laughing out loud. And for me the weakness is not that it is polemical, but rather that that aspect of the book has so little depth to it as Franzen takes pot shots that are obvious (and yes lack nuance). I guess my grumpiness with the book is that it seems to represent a waste of considerable talent. While I’d rate it 6 out of 10 if I did ratings (which hardly means it is a failure), the good parts of it say that some writing discipline could easily have turned it into a 9 or 10.

  14. Lee Monks Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed the book but can scarcely argue with the criticisms made of it. I find the kind of indignant haughtiness that some proponents of the book have employed when justifying their inclusion of the book on the end of year lists particularly interesting. Much simpler, surely, to say that the book was flawed but that they really enjoyed it anyway – which is my take. I did find it perceptive about motivation and maddening internal struggles, and I enjoyed the somewhat contrived, feelgood finale. And it rarely felt baggy. But. What is the but? Perhaps that he’s already done this kind of thing, expertly, before. A great retread, then.

    What did you consider the strongest element of the book? I’d have to say the parts about the son and his girlfriend – that whole part is the one that lingers. Acutely spot-on.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: I agree with your sense — Freedom, overall, was an enjoyable read despite its flaws. What it definitely was not was some intense contemplation on the driving underlying forces in American society, as some of its supporters argue — it is simply to shallow for that.

    I would put forward two “favorite” parts:

    1. On the political side, I quite liked the thread linking corrupt philanthropy with the bird preserve, Mountain Top Removal mining and shale gas. I’m one of those people who are skeptical about “generous” capitalist billionaires (from Rockefeller to Gates and Buffett) who underwrite the spreading of their ideology with what is supposed to be philanthropy. And this theme I think has more depth on the contemporary side as well, as much of northeast U.S. is discovering that old coal mining rights are now being updated as new shale gas rights, with all the threats to water table purity, etc. that that involves.

    2. On the character side, I most liked Walter, probably because he is closest to both my gender and age (which is a testimony to Franzen’s skill at accurate portrayal — I know real-life versions of Walter). Actually, I thought all the major characters were reasonably well developed (although obviously I could have done with a lot less clumsy sex) — one of the things that I remember from The Corrections is that Franzen is good at character development.

    I’ve been pondering Trevor’s reference to the New Yorker excerpts and think that it strikes an important chord. Like Ian McEwan, Franzen tends to write in Lego-like bricks of 20-25 pages. And then he (they) snaps the bricks together. Some are far more attractive than others and the resulting structure may or may not be significant. I don’t mind the process with either author because I think there are enough good “chunks” in the books to merit reading — I do get my back up when critics start proclaiming the result a major achievement.

  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I haven’t read any Franzen yet, so my comments here come with that caveat. He often seems to me a very Victorian novelist. These large novels filled with characters, incident and state of the nation commentary. He feels to me like a Thackeray or a Dickens.

    My wife read The Corrections and was impressed by it (she mostly reads intense and highly literary Southern European fiction but not exclusively). I trust her judgement more than that of professional reviewers I’ve not met but for myself the wall of hype and counter-hype remains too much for me to read it easily myself. Now this is out and if anything the situation is worse. I’d approach it knowing it has been hailed by some as a book of the decade, even in one case as the book of the century (surely a little soon for that particular call). I can’t see how that could not interfere with simply reading it.

    Anyway, an excellent review Kevin and one that fills me with renewed desire to read The Privileges.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I agree with the Thackeray/Dickens comparison in one sense, but part of my problem with Franzen is that his wide-ranging critique has breadth but not much depth. And dealing with the hype is an even bigger problem for me — this book was certainly on the positive side of neutral but there is no way it makes book of the year consideration, let alone book of the century. In some ways, I characterize those evaluations as coming from people who are unlikely to read very many books in the century (which then leaves me feeling guiilt-ridden for being such a snob). The Privileges considers a much narrower aspect, but, because of that, I think is more successful (although that novel too has its problems).

  18. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The Privileges on my impression sets out to achieve less which makes its failures more forgivable.

    Emma and I tend to like either small family hotels or grand luxury hotels. We tend not to like middling hotels with aspirations. The reason is that when a hotel aspires to more than it is capable of it creates expectations that it cannot fulfil. We would rather have smaller expectations and have them met, than larger ones that are missed.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: The hotel metaphor is perfect. Franzen would be an over-priced Marriott.

  20. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It carries into my reading generally it occurs to me. I’m fine with genre fiction, or with genuinely good literary fiction. I struggle though with middling literary fiction.

    If I’m going to have to live without excellence of prose or subtle psychological insight then I’d at least like a decent plot, a few murders or a spaceship to help me while away the time.

    It’s where I agree with Docx come to think of it, a mediocre genre novel is probably still readable because it’s not about the style or the challenge. A mediocre literary novel just has no point at all.

  21. kimbofo Says:

    I loved The Corrections when I read it all those years ago, and was hanging out to read this one. Then the hype kicked in and I decided I wasn’t in such a rush after all. My dad’s informed me that he’s ordered a copy from the Book Depository, so if he finishes it before I fly back to London I may well read it in January. From your perceptive review it sounds like a good holiday read.

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’d say reading it on a deck in Australian summer probably moves the chances of you liking it up several notches. The novel is certainly not lacking good parts and the not-very-good ones can be overlooked in the right kind of environment.

  23. Colette Jones Says:

    Well, I don’t really understand what the person on The Review Show meant when he or she (can’t remember who it was) said that an American would have had to have lived abroad to really get this book. Yes, I live abroad, but I don’t see what there would be not to get if I had never left the good ol’ USA. As you say, Kevin, it’s fairly shallow.

    I did enjoy it. Some of it was polemical but did fit into the story so I didn’t find it too much so.

    I don’t know what is meant by “Great American Novel”, but I’m pretty sure that, enjoyable as it is, this isn’t one of them. I would have enjoyed it more if there had been no hype – I was very unsure in the first third or so.

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: I agree — a worthwhile read, but hardly up to the hype.

  25. Debbie JAMES Says:

    Debbie from Ausralia
    I found this book to be boring, long winded with irrelevant flowery descriptives. Sorry guys I just didnt appreciate this one.

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