Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: Freedom

Freedom Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm very late to the Franzen party. I'd heard so much about him over the years that I thought I knew what I was going to get: a modern day Dickens who's exploring wide swaths of contemporary culture.

I was more than pleasantly surprised by the first half, particularly the long first-person narrative. It felt as if Franzen weren't merely casting a wide cultural net but that he was also playing with form. A novel can sprawl, but it feels organic when it introduces characters from so many different perspectives.

As it went on, though, and on and on, I kept hoping some central conflict or concept would emerge. The novel is called "Freedom," so that's clearly a big part of it, but he keeps redefining the term. At times it applies to post 9/11 matters; at times to the freedom that the breakup of a relationship might bring; and at times to the freedom of wild life to wander in lands unspoiled by humans. I'd be fine with something that broad if the novel thought to connect and contrast such ideas more forcefully, but each is exposed and considered for a time, then it's sort of just left behind -- less something the novel dealt with and more something it simply pointed out.

For all of that, I found myself enjoying the central characters very much. They have rich lives that seem well-rooted in generations of experience, and they act from history, unable ever to win to a freedom that might let them choose the paths of their greatest happiness.

So I held on -- more than that, I read with great pleasure -- the first two-thirds or so of the book. Then things became more and more conventional. Richard's 'selfless' move to break up Walter and Patty, is simply too pat. Too many strands converge for that decades-in-the-making event to come off as it does, allowing both husband and wife to feel fully victimized.

And I began to get tired of relationships in which one character approached another in a fully submissive manner: Walter woos Patty that way; Lalitha waits for Walter that way; Walter's mother can't stand up in any way to Walter's father; Connie abases herself before Joey, waiting forever for him; and Joey initially abases himself before Jenna. Some relationships are like that, but aren't most between people who have a kind of mutual self-respect? Don't most relationships involve two people who can look each other in the eye and say what they want? The pattern got old the longer it went.

Finally, I found the end of the novel disappointing and ultimately unearned. It felt to me as if Franzen couldn't bear to leave his characters in the unhappy places that their choices took them. From the time of Lalitha's death -- which felt too convenient (really, the one time Walter isn't in the car with her?) -- it took far-fetched coincidences to bring about the reunion.

Despite such flaws, I'm still on for The Corrections and Purity. I may take a breather, but I look forward to seeing more of what he does. I may not see as much depth as I'd like, but there's no doubting an extraordinary breadth.

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