Franzen’s Freedom

Jonathan Franzen hits the mark with Freedom. Better than a documentary on today’s society, Freedom condenses all ” the unclouded serenity of (the) countrymen’s indifference” with greed, paranoia, and possibilities into a story around the Berglund family.

Franzen exposes the Garrison Keillor Midwest family’s dark side, plunging the characters into a crisis with his first chapter, titled “Good Neighbors.” Obsessed with her cool teenage son and bored with her husband, Patty slashes her neighbors tires when she learns her son has been sleeping with the girl next door. Immediately, Franzen takes you away from this perfunctory attention-grabbing opening scene to backtrack into Patty’s history.

Through the next chapters, Franzen reveals the inner workings of his main characters. In an interview with Lev Grossman for Time magazine, the author mentioned that he writes dialogue by voicing characters aloud.  (Read the article here).

It works; as Patty tells her “therapeutic autobiography,” you can hear her fears, uncertainties, and passions.  Just when a young Patty feels the euphoria of freedom, the gods slam her down, and she learns to lower her expectations, forego Richard, the sexy rock star, and marry Walter, the stereotypical Charlie Brown. You could be sitting in the room, commiserating with Patty and you can’t wait to hear what mistake she will involve you in next.

Through Richard, the reluctant rock star/writing genius, and his relationship with Walter, his anxious-to-please straight man, Franzen does his Swarthmore years proud. Their conversations become fuel for disclaiming all the horrors of modern society and the implications for a bleak future. Comments on the current political scene are blatant and sometimes hilarious in their truths; it’s no wonder Oprah liked the book.

Franzen is more effective in a paragraph identifying our love/hate relationship with eating meat than any of Michael Pollan’s dilemnas.

(he) suffered through perusal of the menu. Between the horrors of bovine methane, the lakes of watershed-devastating excrement generated by pig and chicken farms, the catastrophic overfishing of the oceans, the ecological nightmare of farmed shrimp and salmon, the antibiotic orgy of dairy- cow factories,and the fuel squandered by the globalization of produce, there was little he could order in good conscience besides potatoes, beans, and fresh-water tilapia.

“F… it,” he said, closing the menu. “I’m going to have the rib- eye.”

The sexual undercurrent throughout the book keeps the story percolating with anticipation. Franzen covers all bases: How will the Patty/Walter/Richard triangle resolve? Will Walter succumb to Lalitha, his young nubile and willing assistant? Will Joey ever break free of Connie? While the love interests only add to the story’s movement, the focus remains on freedom and its costs.

Walter’s obsession with overpopulation (no matter that he is the father of two) -and his cause célèbre, the preservation of the cerulean warbler – give him permission to rant about the modern world, and become his excuse for getting involved with corruption.  But, as Franzen notes “there is no controlling narrative” and the characters carry on with their lives, despite the world failing around them.

Freedom is not a book read lightly. It helped that I was bedridden with a miserable cold and could nap when it got to be too much proselytizing about the human condition and the rotten world we live in.   To Franzen’s credit, the characters are so real, you can’t help thinking about them, even when you are not reading.  And the running liberal commentary on the country’s conservative corruptors could rival the Daily Show.

The end is long in coming, and you may long for it afterawhile, but you need to read, not skim, for those succinct gems that make it worthwhile – whether or not you agree with them, e.g.,

“Like so many people who become politicians, (she) was not a whole person…”

“…he’d done what any holder of a PhD in linguistics might have done: become a stock trader.”

“…today’s parents…(who) seem to think her school should be helping their first-graders write early drafts of their college application essays and build their vocabulary for the SAT…”

The ending is satisfying, forgiving, romantic, and realistic in that life and the world go on.   And total freedom from everybody and everything? Improbable – and could be overrated…but not Franzen’s book.

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Are You Reading What He’s Reading?

Endorsements can help the sales of books, or, at least, get them on reading lists.

Jennifer Schuessler notes in her NY Times article that Obama’s reading of his pre-publication copy of Franzen’s Freedom helped put it on the best-seller list- probably even before it was published.

Always looking for something to read?   Here’s a checklist for you – books to read to keep up…

Besides Franzen’s Freedom, Obama has inadvertently endorsed:

  • Lush Life by Richard Price
  • Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • A Few Corrections by Brad Leithauser

Bill Clinton has a list of his 21 favorite books, including

  • You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

For the more Clinton favorites, see

George W.  lists The Raven: A Biography of Sam Houston, by Marquis James  among his faves.

Richard Nixon, that great hater of intellectuals (and avid reader of Tolstoy) {noted in 1974}… “I am not educated, but I do read books.”

Sometimes It Helps To Be Rejected by Oprah

Remember the author who turned down Oprah for pick of the week?  According to Lev Grossman’s article in the August 23rd edition of Time magazine  – Jonathan Franzen, the Wide Shot – this may not be the real story.  But no one really cares if Oprah felt disrespected or if Franzen seemed above the masses.  Franzen’s Pulitzer finalist – Corrections – survived the public relations faux pas – no matter how depressing the story was.

Grossman humanizes Franzen as a bird watcher and focused writer with another great novel coming this month – Freedom… this one just as hard to take and again revolving around a family’s emotions.  According to Grossman,  its theme may be more important today than ever…

There is something beyond freedom that people need: work, love, belief in something, commitment to something.  Freedom is not enough.  It’s necessary but not sufficient.  It’s what you do with freedom – what you give it up for – that matters.,8599,2010000,00.html

But Franzen’s 2005 remarks at Swarthmore  on receiving an honorary degree provide better insight into what drives this intense author…

“…you may be wrong about …almost everything…but you might as well get used to the kind of person you are…, because that person isn’t going anywhere.”

As a bonus, the Time article offers 5 books Franzen says have influenced him – impressive picks.  More fuel for my library reservations – have you read these yet?

  • The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley
  • Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth
  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton