Monday, 5 September 2011

Freedom - Jonathan Franzen (2010)

I missed all the controversy over Franzen’s The Corrections (2001), the book that sold by the millions and was on Oprah Winfrey’s book club list. I simply wasn’t reading current literature at that time as I was indulging in my love for 50’s Beat literature and science fiction. Franzen infamously upset Oprah by airing his misgivings about having her book club sticker on his book because he was concerned that it would put off male readers and effectively halve his readership. That’s a whole other story but it worked in his favour when Oprah removed the book from her book club list resulting in great publicity and something like 1.5 million sales.

Ten years on and Franzen has ended up on the cover of Time and Freedom has been mooted as a novel for our times and that worn out American concept of “The Great American Novel” has been trotted out. I love large weighty tomes and Freedom is 576 pages of ink and pulp.

The novel opens with a condensed synopsis of the principle characters lives, the Berglund’s, from the perspective of their neighbors. A risky move and for me this section is initially unsatisfying, but later serves to provide great insight and perspective. Perspective is a key to understanding this novel, as Franzen presents different sections of the novel from the differing perspectives of the principle protagonists. This device works quite well and gives the reader several looks at the same events, creating a great deal of psychological insight in the process.

The Berglund’s meet in college in the late seventies and their lives are entangled with fellow student and would be rock star Richard Katz. Richard Katz is a dead ringer for 70’s New York punk/no wave Richard Hell. It wouldn’t surprise me, as all of Franzen’s music references throughout the book are spot on and very entertaining for those who know their musical history.

The novel follows Patty and Walter Berglund’s decent into marital problems, complicated by the continual reappearance of Katz. Walter, a left-winger and bleeding heart for all the ignored problems of the world, most notably the population problem, ends up involved with a coal company undertaking mountain – top removal.

Franzen skillfully weaves the character’s personal issues in and out of the universal issues, finding links between the two. Franzen builds strong characters and the portrayal of Patty’s depression is accurate and poignant. The frustrated and compromised lives of the Berglund’s plays out in almost excruciating detail.

Personally I found the character of Joey to be both revealing and entertaining. In true Family Ties tradition Joey rebels against Walter’s leftist tendencies by aligning himself with the right. Psychologically Joey is compelling. A rugged individualist with sky- high confidence, he is also under the thrall of his neighbor, Connie, who grooms him and seduces him at a young age. Their relationship provides some of the most entertaining passages and also some of the most intense and perverted sex scenes, something that may be distasteful to some readers.

Although Freedom is a bit long and could have done with some judicious editing, it really does provide significant insight into the last 40 years or so of western culture and history. Franzen’s highly attuned descriptive powers lend the novel a degree of intense realism that can either repulse or attract the reader – mainly the latter I found. Thoroughly recommended.

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