Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bag O' Books: Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom"

Three thoughts about Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom":

* I tried something different with this novel, listening to it on audiobook. There are probably better choices for an audiobook than the longest prominent novel of the last year. It took me two months to listen to the whole thing. Forever. I discovered that audiobooks rob you of time to read a passage, then stare out the window and think: The audio moves forward whether or not your attention does. On the other hand: scenes involving phone sex and a character's feces had extra potency in an audio format -- almost vomit-inducing, in fact. The narrator's attempt at accents? Cringeworthy. On balance, I wish I'd read the book instead of listened to it.

* The book, while well-written, is made a bit wearying by Franzen's apparent need to have Something Important To Say about the Bush Era we've all just recently lived through. It makes for distracting fiction, and it makes you wish that Franzen -- an accomplished essayist -- would've just written a collection of magazine columns, instead of placing his fictional adulterous housewives and angry rock stars among real events. Instead of bringing us closer to his characters, it distanced me -- a reminder that everything I was reading (hearing) wasn't real. The suspension of disbelief is still important in fiction, especially when (like Franzen) one is aspiring to old-school traditional storytelling instead of formal innovation.

* The other distraction: Two men in the book believe that the novel's central female character, Patty, is a remarkable woman. But there's precious little evidence that she is remarkable. She played basketball well in the 1980s. She finally got around to reading serious books a few years ago. She writes as well as Jonathan Franzen does, but we're the only ones who know that. Other than that, though, she seems thoroughly unexceptional. It's impossible to imagine the hold she has on the two main male characters in the book, and that makes much of the resulting action less believable and less weighty.

* BONUS THOUGHT: In the end, everybody gets a happy ending. But it doesn't seem earned. In fact, the happy endings that the characters get -- one gets rich selling shade-grown coffee -- seems at odds with Franzen's carefully detailed satire at the beginning of the book, in which one long paragraph lays bare the shallowness and banality of every yuppie goal ever. "Freedom" ends with its characters actually achieving bourgeois goals like the ones it lampooned, only without the irony, making it feel like Franzen is selling out to the very forces he seemingly understood so well. All in all, a very frustrating novel.


Andrew said...

Hah, I remember you describing the audio of the phone sex before I got to it in the book, and I had a sympathetic cringe for you when I got there. Two things:

1. I don't think we're meant to think that Patty writes as well as Franzen does. I thought one of the novel's strengths was his ability to write in the voice of a less accomplished but still very confident writer. I thought it was mean, but it an entertaining way (which is true of the whole book, I think!)
2. Look, Patty may or may not be an especially remarkable woman. But these two dudes are in a serious long term pissing contest. It could be over a patch of dirt and they'd both think it was remarkable. I don't think it's the hold she has on them that's central to the novel, it's the hold the two men have on each other *through* her. And that's left her a little...empty.

Also, I wasn't as distracted as you were by the recent historical backdrop. I had a little shudder reading a NYer piece about Bush V. Gore. I can't believe it's history, man!

leslie said...

Patty was a dedicated mother, house renovator, and gutsy defender of her neighborhood. She licked her own wounds after being raped, no thanks to her parents, and still managed to forgive her father and find peace with him in his final days. I found her quite remarkable, and by far my favorite character.

I agree, also, with Andrew's assessment of the men's relationship with Patty: It was more about them than her.