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.
Imagine a world where kids are picked at random to compete in an all out fight to the death which is engineered and broadcast by the government. Imagine an arena that is booby trapped and filled with implements of death with which the young contestants can maim and kill and monitored by hundreds of cameras. If you’re thinking of Battle Royale you aren’t wrong. However much The Hunger Games borrows from the concept of that novel/manga/movie – and it borrows a lot – it totally works on its own right. The idea isn’t original at this point but it is supremely well executed and hits all of the right emotional buttons.
Don’t think, though, that Battle Royale is the only influence here. There are heavy dystopian future elements with a government that forces its people from each of the 12 districts to play by their rules both in and out of the arena. One of the best elements of this book is the sense of hunger that Collins conjures throughout. Obviously in the beginning we see Katniss outside in her daily life where she must illegally hunt just to feed her family and the hunger is right there on the surface. As the story goes on and Katniss learns how to survive in the arena the hunger becomes something different. It’s a hunger to survive and get back to her family while trying to maintain her sense of humanity. It’s this central conflict between survival and her human nature which drives the story and kept me reading raptly as Katniss tries to win and subvert the rules at the same time.
Of course, there’s a twist. Each district sends two contestants, one male and one female. Peeta, Katniss’ counterpart, is also a really interesting character. He seems to be in love with her but it might just be a strategy to win the game. As these are two young people thrown together by circumstance and under intense pressure some kind of attraction must arise. What it means to each of them drives the second half of this book and Collins brings them through quite a few interesting circumstances. The emotions are very real and complex, an element I didn’t expect from such a book.
This book is, of course, very violent. There are all kinds of death and destruction and gore which makes the events seem very real. The deaths are emotional and thrilling at the same time. It’s being filmed soon and is aiming for a PG-13 rating. I don’t know how they’re going to do some of the more intense sequences unless they really push the ratings like the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (and probably Part 2). I hope they stay true to the intensity and if we must sacrifice some of the blood I guess that’s alright. The book is one of the most exciting books I’ve read in a while and I look forward to reading the remaining books in the trilogy.
I can see why this film draws comparisons to 2010’s Buried. Each tells the tale of a man trapped in a very confined space and follows them as they deal with their situations and their own mortality. Where Buried focuses more on the plight of the man in the moment (Ryan Reynolds in that film) 127 Hours examines how the man got there and what it will take for him to get out (James Franco in an astounding performance that would likely have won all of the awards this season if it weren’t for that pesky Colin Firth). It is this fundamental difference that makes 127 Hours a compelling and intriguing story told in a fascinating manner.
Most know the story of Aron Ralston. He was a weekend warrior who, while on a climbing/hiking/biking expedition, got trapped between a rock and another, larger rock. He’s stuck there for, well, 127 hours until he realizes that the only way he will live is if he cuts off his own arm. This true story precedes everybody’s moviegoing experience and it looms large over the film. Much like Titanic and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, we know how this film ends. Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Sunshine) knows this and decides to focus instead on everything but that. There’s a point early in the film where Aron tries to cut into his arm with a dull knife. It hardly makes a scratch. Now we know that it will take a heck of a lot of doing to fully de-limb himself and while Ralston tries everything under the sun to escape we know that every second ticks closer to the inevitable unpleasantness. That’s good tension building. That’s good filmmaking.
Of course, that’s not the only good thing that Boyle does. His films have always had a kind of crazy kineticism that ensures the audience won’t get bored or tune out. His films demand your attention and this one is no different. Strangely, though I wished that Buried stuck closer to the coffin which imprisoned its protagonist, I was glad that we got plenty of flashbacks and hallucinations while Ralston was stuck in his gorge. In addition to allowing Boyle to work his movie magic we also got to know Aron a lot better than we might have had we stuck with him through the entirety of the film. We see his family and we see how he keeps them – along with the rest of the world – at arms length. His predicament allows for a lot of self reflection and in a touching and fresh and real scene he apologizes for being a huge jerk. It’s not often that a movie has enough guts to condemn its own hero. Once Ralston realizes that he is the only person that got him into the situation he knows that he’s the only one to get him out of it. And then comes the arm amputation.
The big scene comes at the very end of the film, as you would expect. It’s an intense scene to be sure and, much like Tarantino’s deft use of sound and camera trickery in Reservoir Dogs‘ ear cutting scene, Boyle shows a lot with a little. That’s not to say that there isn’t blood and gore. It’s all there, but Boyle’s energy carries us through and saves us some grossness by cutting or moving away just as the worst bits happen. It’s the Jaws rule, we always imagine worse than they can show us. After Aron sets himself free there is a moment to breathe then the movie rushes back into top gear, this time with the greatest joy and zest for life that only one who has been trapped for more than five days and then escapes truly knows. The final ten or fifteen minutes of this movie are practically perfect in the ride they take the audience on. It’s a true examination of the human spirit, one that understands the ups and downs, the good and the bad, the self-centered and codependent nature of man. It’s a film that, by showing the truly horrible things we must sometimes do, encourages us to be the best we can be.