Sunday, October 3, 2010
Review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom
I liked this book. I’m just going to come right out and start with that. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. This is an important declaration to make because I absolutely did not want to like this book. I’d spent the last month purposely avoiding every article and interview about Freedom or about Jonathan Franzen and his utter genius as a novelist. I saw his face on the cover of Time magazine and I thought he looked like a joke; like the obnoxious parody of what a serious novelist is supposed to look like. Everyone was crazy about this book and so, trying to be unique and elitist, I refused to jump on the bandwagon. It was not until I stumbled upon a review of Freedom in the Economist’s arts & culture section that I was willing to give it a chance. Not a periodical prone to exaggeration, the Economist proclaimed this novel as the next in a long line of great American novels.
And so it was, as I found myself reading the novel, that nothing came to mind so much as William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, a book that hadn’t once crossed my mind since I read it with great difficulty in my 10th grade English class. And then as the book progressed I began to think of it less in the style of the American classics and more like one of the great tragedies of antiquity. Finally, after the novel takes a turn that is somehow both completely unexpected and entirely predictable, I found myself unable to compare it to anything at all. It was this feeling that made me most glad that I’d read this book.
At the risk of inadequately summarizing a plot that spans several characters and several generations across a century of time, I will attempt to explain what Freedom is about. It revolves around a family, that much is easy to say. This family, the Berglunds, has its fair share of issues including dishonesty, mistrust, depression, paranoia, and an overwhelming sense of purposelessness. It’s the relatively benign nature of these issues (that is to say, none of the problems in this family are particularly overt, they all simmer beneath the surface) that drives the plot of the novel forward in its own unusually cerebral, somewhat painful way. There are few big events in Freedom but they build in such a gripping way, like a pot of water slowly boiling before dramatically spilling over.
Okay, that was a weak metaphor but I don’t want you to get the feeling that this is a boring book. It truly is not. If you’re someone who needs adventure and action in your novels then you probably will not enjoy this book. Freedom is not your fun summer read and Jonathan Franzen is not Dan Brown. Franzen’s skill comes in his creation of wholly realistic and gripping characters with serious emotional problems that, for their own individual reasons, they are entirely unwilling to deal with until the book’s dramatic conclusion. The problems within and around the Berglund family are the problems of an American, mid-western, middle class kind of family which perhaps lends Freedom its nature as a particularly American novel.
Freedom is both a painful and entirely rewarding read and, in spite of all my earliest inclinations, I found myself completely in love with this book. It’s not a short book and it’s not an easy book to get through but if you can make it all the way to the end you’ll find yourself happy that you made the effort. And when this book becomes a standard text on American lit curricula in the future you’ll impress all your classmates by having already read it.