Freedom

Freedom - Jonathan Franzen Ah, Franzen. The author that everyone loves to hate. It's become apparent that there are 2 schools of thought on Freedom:

Number 1:
It's a literary masterpiece- a modern day War and Peace- a brilliant, unprecedented commentary on family life in the millenium- a majestic portrayal of flawed characters- Epic.

And Number 2:
It's overrated crap.

I must admit to visiting both camps, not completely sure where I belong, if I even want to become a member of either one. I can see camp number 2's point. What's the book about? A marriage based on the fact that the wife chose the safe guy, when she really wanted his best friend- the sexy rocker guy. So she throws herself into being a mom, only to wake up one day to discover her kids can't satisfy her every need. Yawn. Heard it before. And the characters? Does anybody like these people? They can be quite ridiculous. And Franzen writing the first part of the book from the viewpoint of a woman- doesn't work. It sounded the same as the rest of the book. And really, with maybe the exception of Jessica, the daughter, Franzen's female characters are insulting. I wouldn't call Freedom a page turner until perhaps the last 150 pages. In fact, many times I wanted to hurl the thing across the room because.....

Darn it, it is a literary masterpiece. That Franzen can take all those tiresome elements and blend them with his ability to string words together in a way that's never been done before to create a portrait on paper that the reader can either accept as truth or not--- ooohhh... I just hate that guy. And that is ultimately what literature is. Salmon Rushdie said,

“Literature is where I go to explore the highest and lowest places in human society and in the human spirit, where I hope to find not absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination and of the heart.”

The theme of Freedom runs rampant through the book- you won't miss it. It can be summed up in the words of Patty and Walter's son Joey, "Isn't that what Freedom is for? The right to think whatever you want? I mean, I admit, it's a pain in the ass sometimes."

Freedom was a pain in the ass to Walter and Patty because as Walter lamented, "Each time he thought they'd reached the unbearable breaking point, it turned out that there was still further they could go without breaking." And, as was engraved into the main building at Jessica's college, the moral of the story is "USE WELL THY FREEDOM".

Franzen has been criticized for his use of profanity- but it's not rampant and it's not used in a gratuitous fashion. In fact, he uses it rather comically in many cases after a long passage of high brow prose, he'll sum up the point rather bluntly, causing the reader (me) to laugh out loud.

I won't give it away, but the ending was the icing on the cake. It made the previous 500 pages worth it. I believe it was truly the most real part of the novel. Hmmm.... Is this how Franzen intended? Walter states toward the beginning of the novel:

"All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest stimuli."

As it had occurred to Patty early on that, "she was just a person who dwelt in fantasies with essentially no relation to reality".

So yes, it seems that I have a more secure place in the Franzen lover camp. And while I still struggle with his portrayal of the female psyche, the same could be said about his male characters as well- Katz was a stereotypical ladies' man and Walter was, well, a Walter.

I understand Joey is one of the least well-liked characters in the novel, but frankly I found him fun- you can't say he didn't live. He may not have used his freedom well, but by golly he used it. And I enjoyed the parallel between his relationship with Connie and his mother's relationship with his father, both mother and son marrying people who worship them.

Classic novels can be read as representatives of the social times in which they were written. Dickens wrote about 19th century London. Steinbeck wrote about Monterey after the depression. A hundred years from now will people study our current culture based on Franzen? If so, I hope they do it in a way that we today study the characters in The Great Gatsby-don't Patty Berglund and Daisy Buchanan have a lot in common-while there are some lost souls that are tragically comic- or, if you'd rather- comically tragic, Fitzgerald and Franzen are there to help us see the truth of the tale.