Saturday, October 9, 2010

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom: A good book but overrated

The reviews and weeks of over-the-top media hype (his face on an ipad commercial) had me thinking that Jonathan Franzen's new book Freedom was akin to Tolstoy's War and Peace or The Great Gatsby or what I consider an even greater Great American Novel, Grapes of Wrath. Talk about a family, an American crisis of epic proportions, true drama, full characters, political commentary and a moving portrait of a landscape, historical moment and how it revealed and affected American character.

Well, this book, despite critics' claims otherwise, has none of that. It is a well-written book. Franzen is a great writer and his prose is second to none. What bothered me about his first two books (27th City and Strong Motion) is that he seemed to start with a political idea, a polemical premise, and work from there. His characters have not seemed compelling to me, and I didn't really like the Berglunds much either. But the biggest problem with this book, for me, is a key writer decision, one of narrator and structure: who and how are you going to tell the story.

The parts of the book in the third person are wonderful, but when he hands the story over to Patty Berglund and we get her 160-page therapy journal and then a 30-page final missive to her husband, the book becomes a total slog. For me, it just doesn't work. Not only is her narrative voice annoying, the point of view is difficult to follow and maintain. Unlike a novel like Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which really does read like a letter/diary, everything I know about Patty Berglund tells me she is not a skilled or eloquent writer and storyteller. And I kind of resent having to put myself in the hands of an amateur, especially one with issues, when all she's going to do is tell me, straight up, what happened.

In the Time magazine cover story, reporter Lev Grossman writes "He wanted to write about the environment, but most nature writing bores him. He wanted to write in the first person. Philip Roth does, so why couldn't he? But he couldn't. He hated everything he wrote. He accepted, and then punted, a deadline of fall 2007." For the complete article, click here. (Despite much being made of how prescient this book is, how it took him nine years to write but it so accurately saw the issues of our time, he clearly states in this article that he started the current version in 2008, after the economic collapse.) Finally, he found a "voice," the voice of Patty Berglund.

The story is much more enjoyable, meaningful and interesting when it goes back to the third person for the central part of the novel. It can expand to show us and follow other characters in the book who are much more interesting than Patty: Richard and Joey, for example.

My sense of Franzen is that what he enjoys and what he's good at is building up a world around carefully researched and thought through details. The rock-and-roll life story of Richard Katz, for example, is a great intellectual construction based on a number of similar musicians (Alex Chilton comes immediately to mind). His places and milieus are full of great details and a sense, without parody, of place. He chooses Minnesota and then he's good at getting a character built there, the character of Walter. There's nothing surprising about Walter or Patty or Richard or Joey (I must admit, I never could get a handle on Connie's character). Often Patty and Walter don't even feel real to me (even as she's speaking), just a collection of attributes.

Franzen is accurate, and it makes for a great read, but it is in no way epic. Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible is in every way more epic, even in how it reveals American character through the perspective of different members of an American missionary family. And look, she does it all in the first person.

I think Franzen should do what he does best, write these meticulous and exceedingly well-written books about American famlies acting out American neuroses that are both political and personal. There's not enough good writing out there, and his books are important to American literature for that reason.

And the media should just let him be what he is, a good writer, and not try to make him a genius or even a classic. When I think of the book Freedom most resembles, I think of Don Delillo's White Noise. I never could quite figure out how to teach that book in an English Literature class, although there was plenty of criticism out about it and even a compact critical edition. I would imagine Freedom, now dubbed an instant classic, will generate a similar amount of literary criticism. And I feel kind of sorry for the students who will be asked to prove how it fits in the pantheon, when they could be reading something truly amazing, like Alice Munro's short stories . or the truly Great American Novel, despite it's very limited scope of time and character, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird


theoncominghope said...

While I share your general feelings about the book, I actually thought the Richard and Joey sections were unnecessary ballast that really dragged the narrative down.

Full thoughts here:

Susan Sink said...

I can see that-- one person's ballast is another person's relief from the relentlessness of Patty!

theoncominghope said...

I think the book could have been greatly improved with a heartless edit, but hey, most people seem to think it's perfect as it is.