Friday, September 24, 2010

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

For the life of me, I can't formulate a coherent reading of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. There are plenty of reviews out there, so I was hoping to offer some kind of different perspective on the book, but find myself unable to corral them into anything. So, to the devil with corralling and let commence a parade of critical non-sequitors! These observations are probably best suited for those who have already read the book, since I don’t go into anything like context or summary, so I apologize for those who have yet to read it. (Past here, there be spoilers.)

1. I can't help associating Patty Berglund, the female lead in Freedom, with Mad Men's Betty Draper. And you know what? Betty Draper is more interesting and I'll tell you why. In Freedom, we get a couple hundred pages of Patty's diary, explaining the ins and outs of her personality, her childhood, her fantasies, and her disappointments. Betty, on the other hand, is still a mystery. Her future therefore seems more open and unpredictable, whereas Patty's psychology is so over-determined that there's really nothing left to be interested in.

2. Much of the coverage of Freedom seems to figure the book as somehow standing apart from most contemporary literary fiction (the Time cover would seem the most striking embodiment of this exceptionalist view). But I couldn't help but see the long line of Freedom's literary forebears: Henry James' The Golden Bowl, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, John Updike's Couples, Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, James Salter's Light Years and on and on; the long trail of American novels about married couples of the ruling class (and the just under the ruling class) feels quite present here.

3. This reminds me of something one of my undergraduate professors, the great James Carothers, once told me: "I have never yet read an accurate portrayal of the silent life of a couple that has lived together for many years." My own reading experience has born this out as well, but the absence of any sustained effort on Franzen's part to show us how Patty and Walter were together during their good years empties their later struggles of much interest. (For the record, Prof. Carothers also said that he thought repetitive manual labor and excruciating physical pain were unrepresentable in prose. Always found this fascinating. And true.)

4. Even though Patty's "autobiography" takes up a significant part of the novel, I am reminded that we should not be fooled into thinking we know her any better than any of the other characters. In fact, I might argue that we know her less well. In literature, a character's direct composition (diary, letters, etc.) are actually further removed from their interiority than direct narration for one simple reason: they have control over their self-representation in these moments. A great example is Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. For most of the novel, we get Stephen Daedalus' story in the form of third-person omniscience. However, the last part of the novel is Stephen's diary, and we end up knowing less about what he's feeling and thinking for it.

5. With this in mind, you can see the trouble Franzen has with writing women. Patty's text (with a prose style that is remarkably similar to the rest of the novel) is really an end-around of having to write her as Franzen writes Richard, Walter, and Joey. And none of the other important female characters (Lalitha, Jessica, Connie, Carol) have passages in which Franzen explores their interiority. Even the history of Walter's family is strikingly patrilinear. It's somewhat difficult not to see Franzen's depiction of women here as somewhat akin to Richard's womanizing; they find women interesting and important, but distant and unknowable--with Patty, for both of them, the exception that demonstrates the rule.

6. Franzen's success as an essay writer in the years since The Corrections has, to my mind, had a deleterious effect on his fiction. There are simply too many essayistic moments in Freedom (close-reading the persona of Conor Oberst being perhaps the most glaring example) for my taste. His impulse seems to be to diagnose, rather than to portray, the world around him. The Berglunds are so overtly emblematic of a particular swath of American life that they, conversely, represent no one. Compare them to a literary couple like, say, Nicole and Dick Diver from Tender is the Night, and I think Franzen’s deductive portrayal which culls character from the zeitgeist is less effective than Fitzgerald’s inductive one, which achieves transcendence through specificity.

7. I am no longer really interested in this story. The domestic struggles of the well-off seem sufficiently well-trodden in popular culture. Frazen's strain to connect the Berglund discord to larger social issues seems to me to exemplify the barrenness of this particular milieu. Maybe there's something new and interesting to be said about it, but it has to be, you know, new and interesting.

8. To add my ballot to the voting on the meaning of the title: I think it's a canard. Like the fate of the Cerulean Warbler, freedom here is seen as an end in itself whose propagation and maintenance justifies a great deal of wrong-doing. In Walter's professional life, the warbler provides cover for huge crimes against the environment by corporate America. This situation is doubled in his son Joey's foray into defense-contracting, in which he profits mightily from the war in Iraq where "freedom" is the nominal casus belli. This association between the warbler and "freedom" is codified, perhaps even too overtly, on the cover of the American edition itself: the warbler and freedom stand nearly face to face.

9. Speaking of mirrors, what an amazing selection for Oprah. I've only read a dozen or so of the books she has selected, but I can't imagine there has been one that represents her viewership so directly. How many Patty Berglunds will read Freedom? And what will they see in it?

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  1. Excellent review. I have yet to read the book (I have it but I really have no interest in reading it) but from the reviews I read in newspapers and magazines it seemed that they were mostly written by the publisher's press agent (with the exception of Washington Post's excellent video review).

    It's always refreshing to read someone's honest views, regardless if you agree or disagree with them.

  2. Well, I only read your opening paragraph because I'm about to read the book and don't want it to be spoiled! I'll read your review afterwards and most likely have a bunch of non-sequiturs as well. :)

  3. Agreed on a lot of this - Patty's voice is similar to the rest of the novel, Franzen tends to diagnose rather than explain, this actually IS an example of contemporary, serious lit - those specifically. Would disagree though that I'm tired of this story, though - can't get enough of the almost voyeuristic way these people emerge from the page. The politics part didn't have to be new and interesting, but it was - but the Berglunds themselves were quite interesting, I thought - especially with Richard's wrench in the works. I liked Joey's story, too.

  4. I'm not interested in this book, but I am interested by the notion that Franzen's focus on essays have had a diminishing effect on his fiction; thank you for bringing that up.

  5. I have absolutely no interest in reading the book right now, but I do so enjoy your criticisms. Thanks.

  6. Great review. I'm about a quarter of the way through and I'm curious to see if I share any of your views on it, apart from a mild lack of interest I'm already feeling due to #7.

  7. I also wonder what all those Patty Berglunds who read this book for Oprah's book club are going to think. My mom read it, and I saw a lot of similarities between her and Patty as well ... I think she thought it made it more "realistic" since she could relate to it so much.

  8. I just skimmed this as my copy is in the mail from Amazon. I wasn't a huge fan of Corrections, but I do like reading books that have been hyped and forming my own opinions.

    Thanks for sharing -- I'll be back to read it in more detail after I read it myself.

  9. This is one of the better reviews I've read. I feared this is the type of book it would be. I don't think I'll pick this one up for awhile, if ever. Sounds like the hype was a little overblown.

  10. Wow - it's hard to believe we read the same book. Very interesting review, and one I need to give some more thought. However, I have a few points that might differ from yours:
    #1 - While the comparison to Betty Draper is an apt one, it isn't necessary for Betty Draper to be known, because her story isn't finished. I don't think it's possible for a novel - essentially a closed circuit - to leave things in a state of evolution in the same way that a serialized TV show can.
    #2 and #7 - I didn't see the Berglands in any way as part of the "ruling" class. They had little power or influence (unless you consider Walter's manipulation by his employer to be "influence"), and they certainly appeared in terms of financial standing, living conditions, and values to be pretty firmly middle class.
    #8 - I didn't read Franzen's message as freedom being a justification for wrong-doing. In fact, I thought the point was that the concept of "freedom" may be used as justification for wrong-doing but, in fact, freedom without introspection and personal responsibility will, inevitably, result in wrong-doing.
    #9 - I don't know a great deal about Oprah or her viewership, but it's my understanding that she has, literally, millions of viewers. It may be a bit facile to dismiss them all as Patty Berglands. It appears that Oprah has done a great deal of good in the world - surely some of the people who love her and follow her work must have more substance that Patty.
    #3 and #4 - I agree with you that we shouldn't be fooled into thinking we know Patty from her diaries, but the unreliable narrator is a viable literary device. Is it possible that Franzen intended us to question and evaluate her veracity? Like you, I was disappointed that we didn't have a better look into the Bergland's marriage which was, at best, portrayed superficially.

    Yours was a very thought-provoking review. Thanks for taking the time to delineate your perceptions so completely. I really enjoyed reading it!

  11. Man of La Book-
    I have to say, I think most reviews are honest, but thanks for the kind words.

    Maybe the non-sequitor is the new sequitor. I look forward to your reactions.

    It's a book to take seriously and while the tone of my "thinking" here might seem negative, it's a very interesting book. I think there's something to be said for getting beyond the loved it/hated it binary.

    I read, and quite enjoyed, HOW TO BE ALONE, but I don't really look for what a cultural essay does in fiction. Fiction can be more elliptical and oblique, so some of the direct cultural criticism in FREEDOM seems too direct.

    Well, that's a good sign, right?

    I hope you'll drop a comment by when you've made it through.

    Your mom's reaction would seem to score a point for Franzen, no?

    Please do and let me know how you found it.

    As I wrote above to Greg; this is a serious, interesting book. In some ways, it is more interesting that many books I've liked this year, but those moments of interest aren't always positive.

    Thanks for your detailed response. I'll try to do it justice here:
    #1: That's true about the need for an open-end for TV. My sense of Patty though was formed quite early on in her autobiography. The tone and the backward perspective made it seem like her story was over even as she was telling it. And she doesn't do much changing thereafter.
    #2 and #7; Well, Patty's family's estate was so large that even one fifth of it was enough for Patty's sister to never have to work again. And while Walter came from humble roots, he ends up a lieutenant of one of the richest men in the country. If they are not themselves on the throne of the ruling class, they are certainly their handmaidens.
    #8: We might be heatedly agreeing here, but the cause-effect relationship for freedom/wrongdoing is fraught is all I was implying. As an ideal, freedom is particularly ethereal, since it usually is a stand in for something else. You are "free" to do things, as opposed to something like justice which is an end in itself.
    #9: Of course her viewership is not comprised only of Patty Berglunds, but her viewership is predominantly white, female, and over the age of 55 (all traits shared by Patty at the end of FREEDOM) Here's the link with that line:
    And I wasn't at all dismissing these people; I am however quite interested in how this particular demographic might react to the novel.
    #3 and #4: I didn't say it wasn't viable, only that it stood in stark contrast to how he portrayed the men (third person omniscient). I don't know if Franzen wants us to question her veracity, but I generally avoid trying to ascribe intent to the author (this is a longer discussion).

  12. I'm definitely about to read Freedom, so I just skimmed the above. I will say that I think some very interesting and evolutionary forces are at work in American domestic life for the last couple of decades. Or is dysfunction simply the norm? Either way, it's a story that I really can't get enough of. I'll be back to read in full when I've read the book.

  13. Very interesting review. I'm halfway through and agree with much of what you say here, particularly the unknowability of Patty. The distancing effect of the third person, not to mention the lacunae of her story all work against her being transparent. But most of all, this is an unemotional work, and Patty as a character suffers most from that. The rape, which ought to be the dark root of her suffering, is covered over too lightly, dismissed and left unreferred to. Just think how Joyce Carol Oates would have wrung the horror from that! The competitive rivalry between Walter and Richard is written with much greater vitality and power in that same section. Which begs the question for me whether Franzen can't really write women, or whether it is a policy decision to move away from treating the depths of real emotion with compassion. Or maybe a bit of both?

  14. Finished, and I agree with a lot of your points on #5 and #7. I enjoyed the book but there were aspects of it, like Patty's voice and Joey's voice, that I found hard to get around. I did a probably too-long review at

  15. Not read this book, but thought you might be interested that The Review Shows Kirsty Wark interviews him.This can be found via shortly after the programme finishes on terrestrial tv which is 11.50pm gmt.

  16. You'd make a great Franzen character...

  17. All this makes me want to double the size of my review (just written yesterday). I agree that we should get past the love/hate, pro/con binary. I found the book tedious at times (and I think part of that is due to your no. 6) and I don't think it hung together in terms of theme but I think there is a lot in there worth talking about.

    I liked Patty as a character - and was intrigued by the third person autobiography - and was interested in her and Walter's relationship.

    My main problem really was the tone and lack of coherence. What was satire, what wasn't? Who if anyone should we be aligning ourselves with? What are the critical issues re freedom that we should be teasing out - this latter is to me the biggie. The word is bandied around with abandon but with not enough substance behind it. I'd have liked more substance to its exploration in a book using it as a title!