Book Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen were close friends. They talked a lot about the novel’s ability to relieve loneliness. I’ve sometimes wondered what they really meant by that, but in reading Franzen’s latest novel Freedom, I figured out at least one answer: the relief comes when the reader recognizes in a character elements of the human experience rarely articulated with complete honesty and vividness. Upon recognition, you feel less alone for having thought those thoughts too, experienced those things too. Often these recognizable elements in a novel are the features of human nature we hate about ourselves and are most private about: dishonesty, greed, lust. Just as often, though, the recognizable elements include more benign complexities such as love, purpose, the afterlife.

A novel’s unique in this way. Any non-fiction attempt suffers from the fact that real people’s reputations are at stake; even the most entrusted journalist cannot access the full, wretched interior mind of his subjects. When the topic is infidelity and divorce, say, or the insecurities that seem to arise in lock-step with increased professional success, non-fiction projects its ideas in black-and-white whereas fiction–when guided by a first rate imagination–projects in full color.

A more commonly cited loneliness-busting trait of novels is escapism. I.e., get engrossed in some thrilling narrative and you temporarily escape whatever dour, lonely reality you are actually in. But that strikes me as perhaps an old-fashioned explanation. Today’s younger readers are narcissistic. We’re obsessed with our own dilemmas in a way previous generations were not. So how fiction relates to loneliness is not mainly about escaping into some faraway land but rather recognizing our life in the novel’s characters’ lives; engaging in on-going comparison and reflection.

Anyway, Freedom. Frazen’s second big novel. It was a joy to read. The characters are so flawed, and, yes, therefore very recognizable. The plot keeps you hooked, the random idea-bombs on environmentalism are not unenjoyable, and there are plenty of sentences that can be savored completely out of context by virtue of the words themselves.

Sam Tanehaus’s review of the book in the NYT is worth reading if you want the Serious Literary Establishment’s gushing perspective. Here were my favorite sentences from Franzen’s earlier essay collection How to Be Alone. And below are a few of favorite sentences from Freedom.

bizarro sexual and scatalogical repartee with her middle sister…

It pained her to admit that she was a tiny bit embarrassed to let her family see him, and worse, that this may have been another reason why she didn’t want a wedding. She loved him…for qualities that made abundant sense to her in their two-person private world but weren’t necessarily apparent to the sort of critical eye that she was sure her sisters…would train on him. His nervous giggle, his too-readily reddening face, his very niceness: these attributes were dear to her in the larger context of the man. A source of pride, even. But the unkind part of her, which exposure to her family always seemed to bring out in force, couldn’t help regretting that he wasn’t six-foot-four and very cool.”

…Jessica prodded William to describe the charitable organization he’d founded while still in high school — some grotesquely worthy program wherein poor Malawian girls had their educations sponsored by soccer clubs in San Francisco.

To be forty-seven and still trying to impress his college roommate by denigrating his wife and spilling confidences better left unspilled: it was pathetic.

Each new thing he encountered in life impelled him in a direction that fully convinced him of its rightness, but then the next new thing loomed up and impelled him in the opposite direction, which also felt right.

I admire your capacity for admiring.

I had sex with somebody else because I love you. I know that sounds mixed up or dishonest, but it’s the truth.

Seventeen years in cramped quarters with his family had given him a thirst for solitude whose unquenchability he was discovering only now. To hear nothing but wind, birdsong, insects, fish jumping, branches squeaking, birch leaves scraping as they tumbled against each other: he kept stopping to savor this unsilent silence as he scraped paint from the house’s outer walls. The round trip to the food co-op in Fen City took ninety minutes on his bicycle. He made big pots of lentil stew and bean soup, using recipes of his mother’s, and in the evening he played with the ancient but still workable spring-driven pinball machine that had been in the house forever. He read in bed until midnight and even then didn’t fall asleep immediately but lay soaking up the silence.

He now had what he’d wanted, but it was making him somewhat lonely. After all his great longing, which was infinite in scope, he was in bed with a particular finite girl who was very pretty and brilliant and committed but also messy, disliked by Jessica, and no kind of cook.

Every time Patty by herself after sex, she sank down into sadness and loneliness, because Richard was always going to be Richard, whereas with Walter, there had always been the possibility, however faint, and however slow in its realization, that their story would change and deepen.

Water had never liked cats. They’d seemed to him the sociopaths of the pet world, a species domesticated as an evil necessary for the control of rodents and subsequently fetishsized the way unhappy countries fetishize their militaries, saluting the uniforms of killers as cat owners stroke their animals’ lovely fur and forgive their claws and fangs. He’d never seen anything in a cat’s face but simpering incuriosity and self-interest; you only had to tease one with a mouse-toy to see where its true heart lay.

4 comments on “Book Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
  • I loved Freedom for the same reasons you stated above – I literally found myself in every character. The Art of Fielding yields the experience. Have you read it?

  • To paraphrase Edmund Wilson, the cruelest thing that has happened to David Foster Wallace since he hung himself was to fall into the hands of his admirers.

    A novel in which almost every main character suffers from clinical depression does not sound like something I want to read, and I am confident that one can refuse to read Franzen’s Freedom and still be a civilized person.

    I might agree that “younger readers are narcissistic. We’re obsessed with our own dilemmas in a way previous generations were not”, but I don’t buy the simplistic and self-flatttering notion that previous generations read novels primarily to escape from the loneliness of dreary reality, nor the implication that somehow your generation has transcended that antiquated attitude and engages with the lives of a novel’s characters and reflects on them in a way uncommon to us oldsters.

    Sam Tanehaus’s review made me gag several times, especially when I read this glistening jewel of perspicacity: “Franzen makes us see, as the best writers always have, that the only pathway to freedom runs through the maze of the interior life.”

    But the worst part had to be this:

    “In “The Corrections” 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.”

    Retch-worthy indeed.

    I like Ron Charles’ review better, in which he reveals that Freedom “reaches its comic zenith when a young man searches through his own excrement with a fork”, which may actually be an improvement on the scene in which a senile old man imagines his feces talking back to him in The Corrections.

    Apparently Freedom has more to do with the Greek movie O Drakos, or (The Fiend of Athens), than with War and Peace, but I won’t be seduced by any purported linguistic brilliance to read a slog through the detritus of the Berglund family.

    Reading the various reviews confirms my belief that Franzen has suffered success poisoning, and that nothing good ever comes out of family romances from the Midwest.

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