Saturday, January 08, 2011


I spent most of 2010 hearing about how great Jonathan Franzen's Freedom was, while stubbornly refusing to purchase the hardcover. Then I finally did buy it out of desperation for something excellent to read over the Christmas holiday and it turns out I didn't find it that excellent.

It's a book about this midwestern family that has its fair share of problems and it follows them through their various foibles and silliness. It tackles a couple of pretty big themes like freedom and consumerism and conservation, but in the end, I never felt any connection to this family after spending 550 pages with them. I think that's because the entire book is written in the 3rd person and with a very dry and witty narration that makes the whole cast of characters look like a bunch of jackholes. It never moved me or touched me.

The third person really turned me off, particularly when the book was actually from the perspective of one of the characters who writes about herself in the third person. Ugh. I mean, honestly. This character, the mother (and I don't think I'm ruining it for you) writes about how she was raped as a teenager and that part read particularly untrue to me. Taking into account, naturally, that everyone's experiences are different and that a rape victim's reaction, whatever it might be, is not for anyone else to judge, not to mention that it's a work of fiction, but I just found it so untrue and it influenced the remainder of the book for me.
The indignity was that Ethan had considered her such a nothing that he could just rape her and then take her home. And she was not such a nothing. She was, among other things, already, as a junior, the all-time single-season record holder for assists at Horace Greeley High School. A record she would again demolish the following year! She was also first-team All State in a state that included Brooklyn and the Bronx. And yet a golfing boy she hardly even knew had thought it was OK to rape her.

I'm a big fan of The Corrections and would like to read it again. I find it curious that Franzen writes another book about a midwestern family that's sort of fucked up, in which the son goes to far-flung places for dubious business dealings, and everyone has sort of inappropriate sexual adventures. Meanwhile, Franzen gets credited with writing about EVERY family and continues to get such praise as the "masterpiece of American fiction", which I'm not sure it deserves. It's just such a classic that the man gets credited with capturing the human condition while a similar book, written by a woman, would be tucked in the "chick-lit" section. (Or, well ok, maybe it might win the Pulitzer.) There's a great article/story on NPR about feminist reaction to the praise that Franzen receives - check it out.

Freedom is quite funny, and there's a hilarious bit at the end about the father's dealings with his neighbors' cats. I also quite liked how he wrote about consumerism and over-population, but, I do regret buying the hardcover.


Marie said...

I gave up on The Corrections halfway through--I thought Franzen was an arrogant ass. So I am staying away from Freedom!!!

KHM said...

I was very moved by Freedom and the several ways humans (particularly Americans) tend to think of freedom. Funny, I was also very moved by the characters: and all quite negatively with the possible exception of Walter who had his issues but I think he wasn't a total jackhole though he certainly effed up his job. He actually seemed to me like some of my favorite contemporary fiction "Everyman" characters: Quoyle from the Shipping News and Sully from Nobody's Fool. I can't explain why these guys move me but they are all three ineffectual in the same way and although I wouldn't say their stories bring them any "redemption", I have ended up with some hope for them.

Like Marie, I gave up on The Corrections. Maybe that's the way Franzen strikes people: Rob loved The Corrections and couldn't get into Freedom.

I really liked the book. The narrator bit was silly but not distracting to me; I thought Patty's stilted and false voice reflected her character extremely well throughout her telling her story. I think Franzen spun a huge and complicated story with deeply important themes and I think he did it with a pretty light hand. I cringed, a lot, over the two episodes of wedding rings in the toilet. That was uncalled for.

So now I'll go read the other reviews and figure out what I read next.

KHM said...

So, I just finished reading Freedom and Olive Kitteridge back to back. I think both books are going to stand up against time. While I feel like Freedom took on some important political themes and therefore felt more weighty, Olive Kitteridge, IMO, is a much better book. I loved it; absolutely loved it. OK is a bit of a toad, tis true, but she is worthy of sympathy and the effort it might take to understand her.

The book is so amazingly well written. I'd like for my husband to read it but then I realized I've never known my man to read fiction written by a woman. That brings up a lot of questions that kind of irk me and which you open up in this post.

This whole "genre" of chick-lit is kinda disparaged but I don't see the same disdain for what I think of as testosterone-text: all those Tom Clancy books, stupid war and spy stories over and over again... what's wrong here?

Special K said...

good point, KHM!

Oh, Olive! A "toad" - that's perfect!