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Jonathan Franzen: Freedom

January 15, 2011

There is a touching moment during Ramona Koval’s interview with Jonathan Franzen for ABC Radio National’s The Book Show, when she suggests that his latest novel Freedom is “about the problem of figuring out how to live.” Franzen becomes emotional and tongue-tied. As Ramona Koval tries to work out what’s going on, Franzen says, “I like people to like the book. And you seem to have gotten something about it and I also like that.”

 The surprising thing about this exchange is that it is impossible to read the book without ‘getting’ that it’s about figuring out how to live in an age of personal freedom, because Franzen repeatedly describes his characters as facing this question. Here’s one of numerous examples: “[Walter] didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know how to live. Each new thing he encountered in life impelled him in a direction that fully convinced him of its rightness, but then the next new thing loomed up and impelled him in the opposite direction, which also felt right. There was no controlling narrative: he seemed to himself a purely reactive pinball in a game whose only object was to stay alive for staying alive’s sake.”

Given the freedom to choose their own path, the characters, especially the central couple Walter and Patty, totally stuff up their lives, mainly because they are human beings, and their emotional drives or competitive nature outweigh reason. Patty wants to be good and love Walter, but cannot overcome her craving for his best friend, rock musician Richard. Walter’s single-minded pursuit of environmental goodness leads him to make bad choices which are ultimately harmful to both the environment and other people. No one uses their freedom well.

The writing is fine, although I was puzzled by one device. At the suggestion of her therapist, Patty writes her autobiography, and the first section of her memoir takes up 160 pages early in the novel. She writes in the third person, in the same voice as the rest of the book. With no previous writing experience, she is as accomplished as Franzen – so why is she not a major published novelist? Franzen clearly intended to use the same voice, but it is odd. To have a non-writer suddenly write great prose is a form of magic realism, while the rest of the novel is anchored in an uncompromising realist mode.

On the whole I admired this book. So why didn’t I love it? Firstly, it’s too long. Much of it is backstory, even going back two generations at one point to explain something about a character in the present. In his blog Asylum, John Self says: ”There is much to see and do, though it drags at times, like a too-long holiday.” In many parts Franzen could have told the same story in far fewer words.

Secondly, it has a constructed feel, as if Franzen set out to write a book to explore contemporary social issues, and designed the characters to fulfill this purpose. Of course, this is what many writers do, but if they do it well, their work does not feel as though it has been constructed in this way. Franzen does express beautifully what is happening in America – for example, his portrayal of the rage that has gripped both the conservatives and the left wing in recent years, and its parallel in the anger of “nice man” Walter. But even here I remained aware of the puppetmaster manipulating the strings.

Thirdly, the characters. In the interview with Ramona Koval, Franzen says that writers should find something loveable about their characters, and make sure they really like them before they start being hard on them. Yet I didn’t find Freedom’s characters likeable, and didn’t care that they messed up their lives. They are not interesting enough to justify having 562 pages written about them. I enjoyed parts of the book, admired the art in it, but wished I had spent the time reading a different book. I wouldn’t have missed much.

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