There is nothing that I can say about Jonathan Franzen’s superlative magnet that hasn’t been said by everyone from the official newspaper of record, to our cultural spokeswoman Oprah Winfrey, to 4 gazillion unknown word geeks who are wondering if it is socially acceptable to shove this particular 3 pound novel down one’s pants.
Franzen deserves every exclamation point, every “incredible,” and every sheet cake decorated with his likeness. This epic, sprawling, detailed novel about pretty much everything in the world is an engrossing collection of words.
It was reviewer Amy A. who coined the phrase that should be added to the Minnesota Reads’ Dictionary of Useful Terms: “Word sorcery.” Reading this novel is like slipping into a weird time-warp calculated in Franzen years, which are powerful enough to disrupt the perceived rotation of Earth. Every time I sat down to read for 20 minutes, I emerged blurry eyed and sweaty an hour and a half later.
This has nothing to do with plot, which feels less like fiction, and more like a composite sketch of well-educated liberals straddling the property line between baby boomer and Gen X. Patty Berglund is a former Division I college hoops player, in fact a Golden Gopher. Her husband Walter is a smarty with a social conscience, although technically runner-up in the hierarchy of Patty’s sexual to-do list. She has always wanted to throw down with Walter’s college roommate Richard Katz, one of those talented musicians who never achieves pop status, but makes the purist niche froth from every orifice. Think, perhaps, Jeff Tweedy. Daughter Jessica is hard working and self-sustaining; Son Joey is a real charmer, a young entrepreneur, who, with the help of a neighbor girl, sheds his pesky virginity before there is barely grass on the field.
When the novel opens, the Berglunds are gentrifying their St. Paul neighborhood. They are painted with a wide brush at this point, and a vision of perfect little family that includes Patty always remembering the birthdays of her neighbors. By the end of the first chapter, Franzen has ripped off six layers of skin to reveal the malfunctioning mechanics of their domesticity. He’s like a person who carefully constructs something, only to look at it once, smile, then torch it.
A third-person account of Patty’s back story, written by Patty for her therapist, follows. Emotionally neglectful parents, date rape, an over-eager arty best friend, and the awkward negotiations with Walter which were almost derailed by a road trip with Richard. From then on, Franzen fills in more complete versions of the rest of the family — except, oddly, Jessica — and that hound dog Richard Katz.
Now. Here is where I lean controversial. For my $24.95, I enjoyed reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad more.
There is no reason to be comparing these books. One is fictional realism, one is inventive fiction told in alternative formats. “Goon Squad” isn’t the epic, completely saturated, tightly woven novel that Freedom is, but word for word Egan’s book is more creative and didn’t have a single dead spot. And my interest level yawned for much of Walter’s story in Franzen’s novel. I didn’t finish Freedom and consider starting again on Page 1. I did with “Goon Squad.”
All sorts of people may be claiming Freedom is the greatest novel of our time — and maybe that’s true. I’m not so naive to think this book isn’t something special. It is. It’s thorough. It’s intense. It’s really real. But in reading for the purpose of reading for pleasure to be surprised, delighted: I think it was the book I enjoyed second-most in 2010. So far.