March 22, 2011

Book review: "Freedom," by Jonathan Franzen

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Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

If it's rare for me to give out a perfect 10 here at CCLaP (only two to three books per year rate as such), then it's unheard of for me to give two perfect 10s within just a week or two of each other; yet that's exactly what I find myself doing today, as I recently followed up Jonathan Evison's remarkable West of Here in my reading list with Jonathan Franzen's equally remarkable Freedom, undoubtedly the most hotly anticipated book of the last six months, and whose release last fall triggered a simultaneous wave of orgasms from ten thousand NPR reporters and Brooklyn cupcake-store owners that could be felt all the way to Portland itself. And that's because, in many people's eyes (including my own -- let me make my biases clear right away), Franzen is a good bet for being one of the handful of contemporary novelists to eventually define our times for future eyes; he has the academic credibility, after all, plus the mainstream success that lets him be a part of the larger popular culture (why, just his saga with Oprah alone will probably merit him at least a footnote in literary history), plus is known for writing massive, complicated, yet touching and bizarrely funny family sagas, the exact kind of thing that makes for easy bestsellers but that academic committees feel okay giving awards to as well.

And indeed, as I started making my way through this latest book of his last week, I couldn't help but think how similar it is to Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, now that I've finally read that too; and in fact, Freedom comes curiously close to the hypothetical modern remake of Karenina that I mentioned in my write-up, only with his upper-class, eco-conscious, dysfunctional liberals living in the tony suburbs of Minnesota instead of Wisconsin, and with their occasional urban sojourns being to New York instead of Chicago. Because that's really the most important thing about Franzen to know; that much like Sinclair Lewis in the 1920s, Franzen is mostly known for these scathing indictments against the blandly left middle-class and nouveau-riche, almost blasphemous looks at how the hypocrisies and neuroses of such people directly lead to their own downfall -- and like Lewis in the '20s, Franzen's success is due mostly to the fawning love shown him by the exact bumbling middle-class lefties that he so excoriates in his stories.

So that becomes a fascinating question just on its own, of why there are these points in history when the banally evil get great delight out of stories that viciously attack them; and as we can see in Franzen's work when we look closely at it (and Lewis, and John Cheever, and Gustave Flaubert, and all the other writers in history who fit into this pattern), perhaps this is due to certain points in history being complicated ones, where the million small, forgivable sins of a million otherwise decent people is all it takes to create one giant uncontrollable mess, a catastrof-ck that affects us all but that can be blamed on no one specific group, thus necessitating the guilt-fueled self-punishment that has made Franzen such a hit in his time, just like Lewis and Cheever and Flaubert were in their own. I mean, it's hard to deny that this is what Freedom is mostly about, is the various ways that well-meaning dupes end up causing havoc and destruction to everything they touch, through a series of moral compromises that are justified as an inevitable part of the modern world -- from the environmental lawyer who gets in bed with the clear-cut mining industry in order to save an endangered bird, to his neocon son who decides to take on a government contract to procure used truck parts to send to Iraq, just to have the whole thing turn into a third-world nightmare of corruption and violence, to the failed middle-aged musician who has an affair with the lawyer's trainwreck wife, then writes an alt-country album about the experience that becomes the biggest hit of his career.

But at the same time, though, it's the uniqueness of Franzen's voice that really set his novels apart, away from other writers who might happen to be juggling the same general issues; because I have to confess, Franzen is one of the only writers working today where I literally cannot guess from even one page to the next where the story is heading, with his plots taking so many random, unexpected spins and jumps that it's simply a delight just to see what happens next. But like all the greatest writers in history, even though his storylines are impeccably weird and complex, they're mere window dressing to the character exploration he does in his books, the main reason to be reading them; because in this menagerie of angry family members and bizarre liberals, we're sure to see at least a bit of ourselves, with Freedom being a fine examination of how exactly American society could've gone so wrong during the Bush years of the early 2000s, even more fascinating for it being told form the perspective of the people who don't think they're the guilty ones, but are perhaps just as much to blame as the actual bible-thumpers, teabaggers and torturing soldiers.

And yes, Franzen fans, I know, this is starting to sound an awful lot like his last novel, the equally brilliant The Corrections, which is perhaps the main criticism you can make of this book, that the author simply repeats himself a little too much for some people's tastes; but I instead prefer to look back again at the authors I've already mentioned, to see the relationship between The Corrections and Freedom to be the same as the one between Tolstoy's Karenina and War and Peace, or Lewis' Babbitt, Main Street and Arrowsmith, not repeats or ripoffs but companion pieces set in the same shared universe, part of a more massive "meta-tale" that Franzen is weaving together out of his entire oeuvre, which again can be directly compared to, say, how all the characters in Cheever's hundreds of short stories all seem to be vaguely related to each other. This doesn't really bother me, when similar novels from a single author feel more like interlocking pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle; all I ask is that the quality remain excellent from one title to the next, which is something no one can deny when it comes to Freedom versus The Corrections.

It basically boils down to this, that I can't imagine how Franzen could've made this any better than it currently is; and that's a strong motivation for giving a book a 10, when it feels like it literally wouldn't be possible for an editor to go in there and make changes that are legitimately needed. It's one of those books that completely sucked me in while I was reading it, to the point of manytimes no longer even noticing my public surroundings; and this is what the pleasure-reading experience should always be at its absolute best, which is why I consider Freedom among the absolute best that's out there. Needless to say, it comes highly recommended today.

Out of 10: 10

Read even more about Freedom: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:13 PM, March 22, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |