Book Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I’ve been away from this blog for almost two months. I’ve been reading Freedom for about half of that time, on and off. After a fantastic beginning where we get a brief sketch of the Berglund family of St. Paul, Minnesota the book slows down and investigates seemingly every little detail in the lives of Walter and Patty (the husband and wife), Joey (the son) and Richard Katz (the college friend and third side of the central love triangle). It is firmly entrenched in the every day of modern families and their first-world problems. If this isn’t interesting to you or if you can’t connect with the characters this book just won’t work for you. However, if you can see a bit of yourself in each of these people there’s a lot to get out of this book.

Depression is a specter that looms large over all of the characters here. After a bit of post-game reading it seems that Franzen himself has battled with depression and his particular insight to this aspect lends quite a bit of depth to the characters’ individual problems. We see all kinds of depression and the ways that it embroils itself in each of the characters is slightly different. Patty’s love for her husband crossed with her passion for his best friend. Walter’s love for his wife crossed with the knowledge that he won’t ever be enough for her and his firmly held beliefs about overpopulation. Joey’s morals clashing with his need to get rich at the age of twenty. These are all very real people with very real problems and that tinge of depression colors the mood of the entire book.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some bits of cleverness. Particularly enjoyable elements include the opening and closing chapters where we see the Berglund family from the outside. The opening chapter sheds some light on Patty who, according to the neighbors, would never call anybody something worse than “weird”, though later we see that she has the capacity for a lot more than that. The final chapter sees the Berglunds not as a family desperate to hold together but rather a family torn apart by things left unsaid and things too readily said. It’s all very sad but there is an element of hope. Joey and Jessica (the daughter who doesn’t get much to say in this whole thing) seem to have learned from their parents’ mistakes and their own. At one point we learn about Walter’s father and grandfather and we begin to understand that a lot of the problems the Berglunds have come because they are trying to fix the mistakes that their parents made with them. Of course, this just leads to making even worse mistakes. It is, perhaps, not a new insight but it is well told and vividly detailed.

There are, of course, some things that aren’t so great. For a book so cleverly and carefully constructed there are some parts that overstay their welcome. After that corker of an opening there’s a hundred or so pages of Patty’s autobiography. No other sections go on as long as this one and, though it is important and there’s not a whole ton that could be cut out or trimmed up, I got a little tired of it. And there’s another problem with that section: I don’t think it is differentiated enough in terms of style from the rest of the book. It still seems like the narrator and not a character’s personal recollection. Late in the book the autobiography is revisited and that additional bookending device is clever and makes sense (and is thankfully shorter than the first segment) but I wish there was a greater separation between the two storytelling aspects. It’s almost as if Franzen is afraid to write in a “lower” style for a character who wouldn’t be as good as writer as he is. Franzen’s writing isn’t particularly hard to read and I rarely had to go back and reread a sentence or paragraph for lack of understanding on the first pass. It’s all very easy to read, which is good, but there were also very few sentences that stood out to me as beautifully constructed. I guess that’s kind of the point, these people are normal and the writing reflects that. I just generally like a bit more flavor in my reading.

This brief review can’t possibly capture all of the intricacies of the book. And I won’t profess to fully understand all of the implications of the book right now or in the future. However, coming relatively soon I will be talking about the book with my friend, John, on our new podcast, Canon Fodder. There we’ll likely talk about all of these elements and more (I’m particularly interested in the construction of the book and the fact that, besides the autobiography, we only get male-driven sections) and the potential lasting impact of the book. Should it be considered part of the New Canon? At this point, I don’t know. I will post a link on this blog whenever we record that podcast for your perusal and pleasure.

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