Thursday, September 30


By Jonathan Franzen

I enjoyed Freedom. This was not a surprise. It's exactly the kind of book I tend to enjoy; expansive, post-war American literature with grand ambition. About 150 pages in, I was enjoying it so much I already didn't want it to end. The early section narrated by the mother is fantastic. Franzen's gift is to make you care deeply about deeply flawed characters.

I find that longer books (i.e. 500 plus pages) tend to flag in the second half. I hoped Freedom would be an exception. Unfortunately, it is not. In the latter stages of the book, it becomes more and more obvious that Franzen wanted to paint the definitive portrait of our times. This not only gets in the way of the story, it results in increasingly thin and cliched characters. All of the conservative characters are caricatures (the portrayal of Jenna -- the spoiled rich Jewish girl -- is the worst example). I imagine actual conservatives will like this portrayal even less.

I also felt his younger characters were less well drawn. Perhaps I am just getting older and can't relate to college students anymore. But I suspect the same is true of Franzen. I didn't find Joey, Connie and Jenna (or even Lalitha) as believable and compelling as the adult triangle that drives the book -- Walter, Patty and Richard.

Overall, a fantastic read. But by trying too hard to write the Great American Novel of our times, Franzen diminished an otherwise excellent story.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read the LRB review of it... this seems to be the most I can manage with novels lately, I'm sad to say. The list of stock characters and stereotypes at the bottom of your link is quite amazing - wonder if there's an Australian version (of the list). Tim

4:45 PM  
Anonymous Eric said...

I believe it was the conservative columnist David Brooks who complained several weeks back that the book assumed that everyone in suburbia is unhappy in suburbia. Having not yet read the book I can't argue the point. Yet to his credit what makes suburbia so insufferable (at times I should say, since I now cope with it regularly) is that so many people living here actually LIKE suburbia and all that it represents to critics like myself. Ernest Hemingway perhaps described the matter best in reference to his home town of Oak Park: broad streets and narrow minds. Don't know if that sheds any light on Franzen's conception. It explains for me all the Republican signs staked out on the broad front lawns.

6:50 PM  

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