Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book review: "Freedom"

I was rabidly excited to read Jonathan Franzen's new novel, "Freedom."  I loved his previous novel, "The Corrections," and am a long-time fan of his non-fiction pieces in the New Yorker.  He writes with a strain of effete east coast snobbery that I sadly recognize in myself, but he doesn't seem too burned up about it.  As if his past work wasn't enough, Franzen was being proclaimed The Great American Novelist on the cover of Time, Oprah picked his book for her club, and he was the subject of many long, fawning reviews that I wallowed in reading, sometimes twice.

Of course, I should have been warned when those same reviews contained sentences like this: "Franzen cracked open the opaque shell of postmodernism, tweezed out its tangled circuitry and inserted in its place the warm, beating heart of an authentic humanism."  My thought was: Wait a second, did he write a book or build a robot?  I was also irritated by the use of the verb "tweeze."

Despite this, I forged ahead.  To read this book I broke my own personal rules about waiting until the paperback edition, and about not spending unnecessary amounts of money during this age of austerity.  I even returned the first copy of the book that I purchased because I realized that I could save $2 if I ordered it online.  And so, late last night, after purchasing in total two copies of this book, I finished the damn thing.

How do you describe the sound of the air leaking out of a balloon?  I kept waiting for the brilliance, the cohesion.  Franzen is an undeniably compelling writer, and I devoured this book -- but I never saw it as a masterpiece.  The main characters and plots were described opaquely, elliptically -- through the perceptions of the neighbors, through an interminable autobiography of 200+ pages.  I kept waiting for a strong narrative voice to come in and unify the characters, the ideas.  Instead it felt like a negative portrait of the characters -- Franzen stuffed the margins with contemporary ideas and name-droppings, filling in the excess with riffs on war profiteering or mountain-top removal mining, and what remained, silhouetted in the middle, were the main characters. (Perhaps the previous sentence is as bad as the one cited above, but then again, this is not the NYT Book Review.)

I appreciate a writer with ambition, and Franzen plotted the hell out of this -- intricate, complicated, with dynamics that emerge once and resurface again later -- but the structure and episodic nature of the book made it difficult to embrace as a unifying work.  The characters seemed flat, caricatures of actual humans: the aging rocker; the desperate former athlete/housewife, the "Republican" son, who never did anything remotely Republican; etc. 

Although Franzen nodded to contemporary events and motifs, he seemed to just throw them all against the wall in the hopes that the mere mention of Sarah Silverman or YouTube would somehow transform the book into an engrossing portrait of the era.  As if mere reflection and recitation were enough, instead of the deep digging I was hoping for.  The characters were ciphers, vessels to carry these labels, yet they never engaged with them.

Personally, it was interesting to read about Franzen's idea of UVA during 9/11, which I was present for, or of McLean, Virginia, which is my hometown.  He was sort of right and sort of wrong about both.  His writing often fell flat for me -- none of the casual poetry of Ian McEwan or Lorrie Moore -- and there were some sentences that seemed as if they had been dashed off in an email, rather than as part of this year's Great American.  Too much dialogue in ALL CAPS.

But did I enjoy reading the book?  Yes, I did.  I couldn't put it down.  There were a few emotionally resonant scenes, and I enjoyed how he toyed with the idea of freedom -- its blessing and its potential danger in our modern society.  The opening and closing sections were strong, steered by an omniscient narrator who could survey a broad community of characters and ideas, who could describe the sunset falling over a lakeside community, who could write with biting wit.  If only Franzen had not ceded the book to so many other, lesser voices.

As far as the chorus of ecstatic reviews go, I think I have been burned by the literary hype machine.  Once again I asked L if perhaps I'm just a lazy or shallow reader, but I don't think so (I've got David Brooks and B.R. Myers in my corner).  Perhaps the overwhelming praise is for Franzen's ambition, if not his execution; perhaps it's for our own self-indulgence as we read a novel about liberals with irony and Twitter streams; or perhaps this is a round of literary self-congratulation to which outsiders are not invited.  The final disappointment came when I realized that the people to whom the book was dedicated were Franzen's agent and publisher.

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