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.