I used to write book reviews all the time. I would read a book, write a review, get a personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut and start the process all over again. Those were the days when I saw the world from pepperoni-colored glasses. I didn’t have to worry about calories or fat content. Hell, I didn’t even really have to worry about reading. Just cut and paste a few words of synopsis off the back cover and — voila! — Pizza Hut here I come. Who cares, right? It was just a personal pan pizza. Wasn’t like it was a medium, or, better yet, a large. Now that I am older, and Pizza Hut’s personal pan pizzas are a distant memory, I don’t read as much. I was spoiled as a schoolboy. Now there’s no incentive. I have to pay for my own pizza; I have to pay for my own books. The world is not fair.
So without further lusting over undersized, constipation pies served in a cardbox board ornamented in a gallon of grease, here is my review of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Spoilers are all over this mug, as my old English teacher Grem would say.
FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen (576 pages)
Credit Jonathan Franzen. He did not back down, or shy away, from expectations for his first novel since National Book Award winner The Corrections nine years ago.
He embraced the expectations, naming his book Freedom, a declaration that this would be a serious and important work of fiction, touching on a variety of serious and important topics.
And so he goes about his work in the Oprah-approved Freedom — a title, or word, that speaks to the character’s ability to choose, even when they might wish they did not have such powers.
Among the underlying issues, at hand, are the need to make others happy versus the need to make yourself happy, political ideology and the environment, nature conservation, city attitudes vs. rural attitudes, etc. All are worthy of consideration.
My problem with Freedom is not with the weighty issues Franzen takes on or the statements he hoped to make. Not at all.
Protagonist Walter Berglund’s views on overpopulation, for instance, make sense, even though they might not be practical. I also understand the argument that good ends (i.e., Walter’s desire to help the tiny blue-breasted ceruleans) can justify bad means (i.e., mountaintop removal). Such is the world we live.
The downfall of Freedom, and what makes it a less than satisfying read in my opinion, are the characters Franzen chooses to use as vehicles for his assertions on 21st century middle class American life.
The Berglund family, a quartet of characters whose axis the book revolves around, does not have a likeable member in its brood. There is nobody to root for. There is only scorn, heaping piles of selfishness and an impending sense of doom.
Yes, this is a character study of a middle class family at wit’s end, and more particularly a couple whose love has eroded and now are looking for new avenues to rekindle their passion for life. I get that. But that still did not make me engage in the characters’ development as much as I would have liked.
For instance, when Walter finds out his longtime wife Patty has slept with his best friend, Richard Katz, it is not a revelation that engenders empathy for Walter, a nice guy up until this point. Instead, it’s a reminder of how much of a wuss and a pleaser he’s been with his wife. They should have divorced long ago, but instead they elected to continue living amid lowered expectations.
Patty could have been a sympathetic character, too. I found myself angry with her parents when they didn’t report her rape as a teen because it would have damaged their relationship with a prominent political family in town. Her mother fails to attend her basketball games, even as she becomes an All-American, and her best friend is psychotic. She deserves some love, right?
However, Patty turns out to be a self-centered wino whose primary goal in life is to fuck a man who discards women like chewing gum, and who happens to be her husband’s best friend. This is the decision she makes; this is how she wields her freedom. Not wise, but then again neither is staying married to Walter in a stale sham of a marriage.
To say the couple’s two children, Joey and Jessica, are not the most loving or dutiful children is an understatement. Joey is something of a sociopath who believes the world is his oyster, and treats his girlfriend/future wife in a way that would make Richard proud. Jessica, his sister, is a go-between for the parents, and is largely forgettable as a character, when compared to her brother.
Franzen is a master of plot and middle American highs and lows. He is not a master of the plot twist. That would not normally be an issue, except here it feels like the game-changing events in the book aren’t game changers at all.
There was no electricity when Patty finally sleeps with her husband’s best friend. She sleep walks to his bed?!?!? Huh??? And why does Walter leave notorious womanizer Richard alone with Patty, anyway? Bizarre.
The same temptation overcomes Walter and Lalitha, his assistant. He struggles to remain true to his marriage vows on the surface, while all the while breaking them in his mind. When they finally have sex, after Patty’s secret is revealed, it is anticlimactic.
Lalitha’s blind obedience to Walter, a follower dressed in leader’s clothing, is vexing. Yes, she is young and eager to please — sort of like a slimmer, more desirable Monica Lewinsky with Far East bloodlines — but is also sharp and beautiful, and draws Katz’ roving eye.
When Walter and Patty’s marriage fractures upon reading her secretive book about her life, I had no desire as a reader to see them get back together. They back-doored their way into situations, and with people, they should have chosen much earlier.
Freedom can be a wonderful thing; it can also be a scary (and paralyzing) proposition, as we see from the married couple examined in this book. The ending, for the reasons I listed earlier in this graph and others, felt at best misguided and at worst untruthful.
As for Franzen’s big statements, they got lost amid the inner turmoil and failings of the characters.
Walter’s desire to save birds and their habitat always seemed like a way for Franzen to build the tension between he and Lalitha or to show his inner conflict at serving a master he disagreed with in principle, but who gave him money to pay for a project he believed in.
The idea of selling one’s soul in order to do something one believes in is an interesting concept. Conserving ceruleans is not; neither is mountaintop removal.
Walter becomes something of a cause celebre after he spouts off in a pill-induced rage during a taped speech. One has to wonder if Franzen would not have benefitted from injecting a bit of spontaneity into this book.
Maybe he should focus less on making a grandiose statement about the environment or life as we know it, and focus more on crafting characters, who while flawed are capable of redeeming themselves in the eyes of the reader.