Jonathan Franzen, I’m not sure I get it

There’s something a little lonely and alienating about being on the opposite side of popular public opinion. In this case, I’m talking being one of the few people who did not fall head-over-heels in love with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

In fact, I wouldn’t even go so far as to say I like like Freedom. Though I’m pretty sure that I like it. If I were in a relationship with this novel, our Facebook status would be “it’s complicated.”

Franzen’s tale of suburban ennui centers around Patty and Walter Berglund, their relationship, and the people who orbit planet Berglund. Patty’s from suburban New York the black-sheep athlete in a family filled with politicians and artists. She leaves home to go and play basketball at the University of Minnesota and never looks back. In school she meets mysterious rocker Richard Katz and his earnest roommate, Walter.

After some romantic hokey pokey, Patty chooses Walter and the two marry, settle down in St. Paul and raise two children. After a few decades in Minnesota, the Berglunds pack up and move to DC where Walter, an allegedly good liberal and environmentalist, heads up the Cerulean Mountain Trust. While in the nation’s capital a lot of shit hits a lot of fans. Then some other stuff happens.

Really, when you have a book that encompasses the entire life (and in Walter’s case his father and grandfather’s lives) of a few characters, trying to pithily summarize it is nearly impossible. It’s a big book about everything and the kitchen sink. Had it been a slightly smaller book without the sink, I might have loved it.

I’m a big fan of pompously pronouncing that an author has to earn every page after about 350. Franzen doesn’t earn it. In fact, it seems as though entire sections of the book are included not to tell the story of his characters, but rather to give Franzen a soapbox to stand on. It’s the only reason I can figure for including the sections that focus on Joey, the Berglund’s rebellious teenage son. His storyline — the extended relationship with the girl next door, his becoming an arms dealer at the age of 19, and his attempts at redemption — doesn’t provide the reader with a lot of insight into the main story arc, the relationship between Walter and Patty. Plus, his sister Jessica isn’t given the same attention. Probably because she didn’t have an agenda or because she’s a woman and therefore not as interesting as the penised members of society.

While this sounds like a lot of bellyaching, there were parts of Freedom that I adored. The way Franzen bookends the novel with sections written from the point of view of Walter and Patty’s neighbors is brilliant. It offers up not just another view of this enigmatic couple, but it provides Franzen the opportunity to say a lot about the upper-middle class in a way that feels genuine to the story. Plus, there’s Richard Katz the reclusive rocker who provides a constant source of tension between Walter and Patty, each vying to be #1 in Richard’s heart.

But Walter and Patty, as characters, are hard to believe. Patty’s story is shared in an autobiography allegedly penned by the housewife at the behest of her therapist. However, the memoir doesn’t sound like it’s written by Patty. The memoir writer’s voice never jives with Patty’s voice in other sections of the book. And Walter, at times, is a level-headed martyr and other’s a hotheaded, unreasonable zealot. Franzen doesn’t quite make the vastly different aspects of these people’s personalities coalesce in a way that’s believable.

For all this nit-picking, I can say Freedom is an engrossing read if not maddening and frustrating at times. I guess it’s kind of like life in America. Which was sort of the goal, right?

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1 Comment

  1. Jenn 22.Mar.11 at 8:26 pm

    I just finished the book, and immediately looked up your review about it because I, too, am not sure I get it. But I liked it. I think. I mean, I read it in only a few days – literally couldn’t put it down. That must mean I liked it, right?

    I was really blown away by his descriptions of life in St. Paul, but that’s because I live in St. Paul, and I’m wondering if that familiarity is the reason I was drawn in? I, too, enjoyed the sections told from the neighbors’ perspective, and I agree that he had some spot-on things to say about the upper middle-class. But the tangential soap-boxy sections bored me. I started skipping every other page, as I was once advised to do if I ever dared to read Jean Auel. I just wanted to get back to the characters.

    I suppose the characters are what I liked best. In some ways I feel like he tried to encompass too long a span in their lives. Walter and Patty started to act and sound like Bizarro Walter and Bizarro Patty. Katz was consistent for me. Not enough of the daughter. Frankly, I could have done without the son. I think what he did to his neighbor-girlfriend-eventual wife over the course of the story was cruel, making me not buy their marriage at all, and wondering what point Franzen was trying to make.

    Yes, like you say, maddening and engrossing.

    Reply

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