Elevate Difference

Freedom

Brittany: I’m one of those lit geeks who has long loved Jonathan Franzen. I read How To Be Alone on a solo trip to Japan when I was twenty, and it particularly spoke to me as an introverted writer. The better part of a decade later, I’m still so infatuated with that particular collection—though I’ve also read Franzen’s three previous novels, memoir, numerous pieces in The New Yorker, and his longtime partner Kathryn Chetkovich’s Granta essay “Envy” before it was so publicly associated with Franzen—that it was no stretch to know I’d like Freedom. I’ve also read a lot about Franzen’s process as a writer, and frankly, it seems few people have the commitment to churn out the type of work he produces. That doesn’t mean I think it’s above critique; it’s just that I admire his work ethic and generally, the end result.

Mandy: Given that I frequently read The New York Times Book Review and listen to pop culture pundits on NPR, I’m quite familiar with Franzen’s status as a literary darling; however, I had never read his work until Freedom. This past July, I listened to a compelling New Yorker podcast in which Franzen discussed the prevalence of songbird killings for food in the Mediterranean, and I decided it was time I join the ranks and give this guy a shot. When Freedom was released, I dutifully attempted to avoid its reviews, so as to not taint my experience of the nearly 600-page tome. But that effort yielded little success; once the media got a hold of the book, glowing reviews were ubiquitous, and thus my hopes were high.

Brittany: Freedom ended up being much of what I expected, and months after putting it back on the shelf, I’m still relatively satisfied with the long nights it took me to finish it off. Five main characters (six if you count the underdeveloped daughter) weave in and out of one another’s lives, most tragically and painfully, and nearly all of them are deeply flawed, rather screwed up people.

For reasons I still haven’t quite figured out, I identified both with philandering tortured artist Richard Katz and college athlete cum miserable housewife Patty Berglund. In part, I think this is because Franzen has gotten rather good at not overstating who his characters are, allowing readers to put a bit of our own experience onto the story of each key player. That said, as is nearly always the case when a critic loves a mainstream work, I like to pretend that the reflection I seek in this sort of fiction isn’t shared by anyone else. I don’t want to think about who else identifies with a woman like Patty, because in the end, while I might have felt for her, having sympathy for her character is also very much a statement of how I see myself opposed to her. I’m not a miserable housewife, nor am I an adulterer (even if I do sometimes act like a tormented creative type). Being able to both identify as something and not as something both hold value for me; in this case, simultaneously.

Without giving too much away, I think the book is about having compassion, and I suspect that I liked it because I tried to have a lot of it for all of the characters. Except for Joey Berglund. I think he has a personality disorder.

Mandy: While I understand why Franzen is being showered with praise, I was pretty disappointed in Freedom. To my mind, fiction should facilitate a temporary transportation into the world the author has created, and my main criticism of Freedom is that I was entirely aware through the duration of the book that a) I was reading, b) I was reading something someone made up, and c) I was experiencing characters through the lens of the author (read: they didn't come off as authentic selves). It also was clear to me that Franzen himself really identifies with Walter Berglund; therefore all the characters felt like they were presented through Walter's point of view, even when they were in first person narration.

Many critics have lauded Franzen for having the ability to write realistically from a woman’s perspective, a notion that itches my anti-essentialist thinking and one with which I don’t entirely agree. Even though most of Freedom is written is from Patty's perspective, the novel really revolves around her husband, Walter. For that reason, it makes sense that Franzen chose to write a lot of Patty's self-reflection in third person, particularly since one can argue that women’s lives tend to revolve around men’s (instead of their being agents of self-determination), a viewpoint to which I give some credence. But the question is one of intentionality on the part of the author, and I don't think Franzen was ever really able to get inside Patty’s character in a way where she enveloped him; it was always the other way around, with Walter being the focal point. The same is true for Richard Katz, the two kids, and Lalitha. In fact, the only character I even slightly identified with—and believe me, it was only slight—was Jessica. But she barely got any face-time, and may have been the least developed of all the characters.

It probably didn't help Franzen’s case that I recently read Zadie Smith's On Beauty, a novel which is thematically similar to Freedom (in that it also has a filial cast of rather unlikable characters who represent middle class liberal America’s hypocrisies and idiosyncrasies) that also had the benefit of an immensely skilled author whose linguistic craftsmanship and character development outshines Franzen’s, in my humble opinion. Smith’s characters are messy and lack self-awareness or self-control that might prevent their ample mistakes while Franzen’s characters see the forest for the trees and still insist on bumbles. In that light, On Beauty contained happy and unhappy surprises that felt genuine. With Freedom, I had the jump on the trajectory of each storyline from beginning to end, and the failure of the writing itself to captivate had me using the strength of self-persuasion to avoid skipping pages. In short, enjoying Freedom required too much effort for my liking.

Brittany: The last two pages of the book were simply magical for me and made the whole thing worth it because I'm not good enough yet at predicting endings to have seen any of that coming. I tend to think ninety percent of fictional or fictionalized stories—films, books—end horribly, and this didn't. I may like to think I’m above a happy ending, that I can somehow stomach that life so rarely grants them, but for me personally right now, I was just sort of relieved that even made-up people could have one.

Written by: Mandy Van Deven, Brittany Shoot, January 6th 2011

What a great idea to have two reviewers, especially since you had different reactions. I have mixed feelings about Franzen's work, so this review met me at that level and made it easier to decide to give Freedom a try.

Thanks!

It was a great idea to see two different points of view here.

I never understood what all the fuss was about. Freedom was great in parts, but I've read better.

Thanks Ellen & Heather! We had fun writing it, so I'm glad it resonated with people.

Unrelated, I forgot to mention a minor quibble with the book: At one point, Franzen describes "5,000 euros of Danish government arts funding" that Richard Katz received. Maybe he assumed it was somehow easier than explaining exchange rates -- U.S. readers can't possibly understand foreign currency beyond euro or yen?? -- but Denmark still uses the Danish krone, not the euro. I have a hard time believing this wasn't just lazy storytelling because any underpaid copy editor can (and should have) Google(d) that.

So glad to hear that others have mixed reactions to Franzen, and that Brittany's and my idea to dwell in that ambivalence was well received.

One thing I kept hearing from reviewers (and Brittany) is that Freedom is hard to get into, that it takes about 200 pages before it starts to hook you. My thoughts are this:

1) It was around page 300 that I, disappointed, finally gave up on the hope of being hooked. In fact, I only finished the book because I'd already put so much effort into it (I was more than halfway finished at that point) and because Brittany strongly indicated that the last few pages would redeem the prior 550. But, for me, they didn't. (Sorry B!)

2) The first 200 pages of the book are primarily Patti's POV and the establishment of the characters (save for one), which I think speaks to my earlier point about the writing not conveying authentic character development.

Okay, now I will shush.

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