Saturday, September 18, 2010

Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

BEST OF 2010

It is close to impossible to not be aware of Franzen or his newest novel, Freedom. Franzen is the first literary figure to grace the cover of Times in the last ten years. Freedom received rave reviews from Michiko Kakutani over at the New York Times. This review sparked an anti-Franzen panic amongst un-literary female authors (Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult) who believe male authors are the only authors getting praise (um, maybe give Toni Morrison a call, ladies?). Freedom has been reviewed as the great American novel. And, as of Friday, Oprah revelead Freedom as the first book for this season's book club. This has shocked many, as Franzen, nine years earlier, refused to appear on Oprah's show after she picked his previous novel for her book club.

How does so much commotion come out of a single book? A novel. An object so many feel is on its way out. Is this the last cry of literature? A final, giant explosion before the end? And, why for Freedom? What does Franzen have that so many authors lack? And, seem to want? I think it's the attitude. The literary world doesn't have any assholes anymore. And, by assholes I mean literary giants with egos, personalities, and larger than life opinions. Franzen is all of these things and more. This should make him unlikable. But, it makes for a great writer. Literature means to push buttons and explore territory meant to be swept under the carpets. Franzen refuses to back down.

The only negative comments being tossed Freedom's way exist within the critics sense that Franzen really hates his characters. That the characters are meant for satire and come with a level of dirt and grime many inches thick. But, I have to disagree. Did these reviewers not follow Franzen to the finish line? Yes, these people are selfish, lost, pained. These people do ugly things to one another. They lie to themselves. They stand for all those things we, the reader, would say 'who could do this?' Well, the answer is pretty easy. We would do these things. Generation after generation we have been doing these things. What places this in a category of "great American novel" is the way Franzen uses a single family of four to explore, exploit, and uncover our dirty rotten selves.

Would I agree that this novel is the great American novel? Probably not. But, do I have a better piece of evidence? A stronger book? Nope. But, I'm not so sure the great American novel will ever exist. There must be a Jesus Christ complex in all realms of the world... some imagined concept of perfection to drive us forward. Freedom is one of the strongest novels I have read in years, though. Franzen has created a literature melding contemporary issues and plotting while combining the epic nature of classic literature. It is rare I read a novel and think "this is the type of novel I could have written an amazing paper on at university." But, this is that novel. The type of read you can't stop dissecting. The type of novel you won't stop talking about. The type of literature you want to share with everyone. (Luckily, Oprah is taking care of this for me).

There are weaknesses to the novel. I find the political issues of the father and son to become a little too abstract. A little too lost to satire. I found myself uninterested. But, this isn't to say they aren't significant. Only that I was not fully consumed during these passages. The only other issue is the section written by Patty as an autobiography at the request of her therapist. The voice of the narrator hardly changes during the section written by Patty. Are we to believe this woman is so knowing? So aware of self? Yet, unable to get through her day to day without falling apart? Again, this negative has a positive. The section narrated by Patty is one of my favorite pieces of the entire novel.

Franzen isn't covering new ground. He isn't forcing us to take in some brand new concept on the dysfunction of family and the way history repeats itself. This is very much a novel of how we deal, and don't deal, with our pasts. How far we can run before we run ourselves right back to where we started. A giant circle. The heart of the novel, in my opinion, exists within this one sentence: "Why don't you want to deal with the thing that's important right now, and deal with the past later?" (p.497). This is exactly the problem. We want to fix the past before we fix the present and future. But, can the past be fixed? Forgotten?

Freedom is literature. Franzen's characters are real and realized. Freedom is the literary event it is being pushed as.


  1. Franzen is a laughable, untalented, obvious hipster piece of shit. What he lacks for in talent he makes up for in douche baggery. Veneration of assholes like Franzen will one day destroy our world.

  2. To the 12/29/10 post - Conceding only for the sake of argument that Jonathan Franzen is what you say, then the only difference between you and him is that he is getting paid for his "douche baggery (sic)."

    Jonathan Franzen is "untalented"? Mm-hmm. Clean-up on aisle 5, so back to work.