Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
When this book first came out there was a stink about how much coverage it got. Jennifer Weiner, successful “chick lit” author, counted how many men and women get written up in the NYT book reviews and that statistics were really sad. Franzen and his hype got attached to this story with this quote: “Schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the pain in others. Franzenfreude is taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen.” I agree with Weiner’s industry-level critique wholeheartedly, but that doesn’t keep me from liking Franzen’s book.
As far as themes and topics go, Weiner could have picked a target with more traditionally masculine concerns. Freedom is a domestic story, painting a detailed picture of a family over the course of a lifetime, and dealing with love, children, and marriage. It’s probably true that when an acclaimed male writer writes about these topics they are taken more seriously than when a female writer does, but it’s also important to note that I didn’t find anything particularly anti-feminist about the story itself. In fact, its discussion of a main character’s rape and the victim-blaming, culprit-protecting ways her parents dealt with the issue show how serious this miscarriage of justice can be, and the way it can reverberate throughout a lifetime. Franzen and the reader are completely on the victim’s side, indignant at the other characters’ treatment of her. That’s important.
The book is also concerned with politics. Two political diatribes serve as centerpieces. Environmental concerns are foregrounded, along with corruption. Though the characters are very political, the book never felt too preachy because the characters’ political beliefs are so idiosyncratic and offbeat, and because they are often unsuccessful in living their beliefs out, or their intellectually-motivated positions do not fit their emotions and deep desires, which leads them to rationalize pretty transparently. I didn’t get the sense that Franzen himself stood wholeheartedly behind the stance of any of the characters. This attention to public politics might be the most traditionally “masculine” aspect of the book. Perhaps this theme is one reason why critics reacted to the book the way that they did and gave it importance that they might not have given to a more completely domestic (“feminine”) novel.
The book had a stylistic innovation: a five-part structure using different forms and points of view. The first and last sections are a far-removed almost-omniscient point of view, telling the story of a neighborhood and the relationships between and among the neighbors. The second and fourth sections are an “auobiography” of one of the characters, written in third person. The middle section tells of events in three of the main characters lives from a close limited third person point of view. Events are spread over at least 10 years, maybe as many as 40 if you count flashbacks. This structure allowed Franzen to examine events from several points of view and uncover their deep roots in family history.
Franzen’s wry tone was enjoyable to me. He seems to like to show people at their worst, to dig into the ugliness inside of every character and lay it bare. I think each of the four main characters had a moment like that, if not several. He was merciless. The voices of the characters, the detail in descriptions, and the occasional unexpectedly perfect word all gave pleasure at the level of the sentence.
I was really fascinated by the way the generations mirrored each other subtly, reflecting each other and falling into recurring patterns. It felt both inevitable, like a Shakespearean tragedy, and realistic, because we all notice patterns like this in our own families. Franzen really cut deep and dissected these relationships. There were many long passages of summary analyzing them, and despite not really moving the plot forward much, they were not boring because of the strong sentences and the sharp insight expressed. I notice that I keep using metaphors of digging and cuttting to describe the book and the way it reveals the characters. That feels right to me because it’s such a long book, that puts such a strong magnifying glass on just a few characters; there’s nowhere to go but deeper inside those characters, pulling apart their layers and revealing what’s really going on underneath their pretensions and stated intentions.