Historically, I have been a hater.
In Paul Russell’s Narrative Writing class, 2002-3 (for the record, probably my favorite college course), we read The Corrections in preparation for Jonathan Franzen’s much-anticipated visit to campus. We all thought it was varying degrees of okay. As I remember, no one loved it. I remember being put off by a certain smugness that I felt characterized the prose, and by the treatment of the female characters. Can I back that up now? No–I don’t remember the book very well. That, I think, says a lot about it, too.
When Mr. Franzen arrived on campus, there was a huge audience of students, faculty and other spectators waiting for him. He headed up to the front of the Villard Room and proceeded to spend–I kid you not–at least 5 minutes trying to balance a Poland Spring water bottle on the slanted surface of his podium. He had to have been on something. A student finally stood up, carried his chair up to the podium, took the water bottle out of Mr. Franzen’s hand, and put it down on the chair. It was one of the most horrifyingly awkward moments I’ve ever witnessed. Next came Mr. Franzen’s admission that he hadn’t prepared anything. He said something like, “So I tried to come up with something on the train ride up here and I couldn’t do it.” Uh, awesome.
In the aftermath of this mortifying event, we were allowed to skip the Q&A session in a parlor we were previously supposed to attend lest we say something too horrible, and were subsequently banned from every mentioning Jonathan Franzen or The Corrections again in class. We were allowed to go around the table and complain once, and then never again. I’ve made up for those few months of silence by being fairly vocal about my dislike of Mr. Franzen and his work ever since.
UNTIL I READ FREEDOM.
I read it despite my bad feelings about Mr. Franzen because since when does literary fiction get this much attention? Magazine covers, bazillions of articles, controversy (would this book get so much attention if it were written by a woman, etc. etc.). And you know what? Even though plenty of OTHER books deserve way more attention than they get and that’s a problem I’d love to discuss, let’s not say that Mr. Franzen doesn’t deserve it for this book. It’s fucking fantastic.
Freedom is a huge book, which was a pleasure because it allowed for a sustained immersion in a world I couldn’t stop thinking about even when I wasn’t reading. It centers around the four members of the Berglund family, Patty and Walter and their kids Joey and Jessica, as well as Walter’s college friend, the musician Richard Katz. Structurally the book is nuts–it starts with a sort of zoomed-out overview of the family’s years in Minnesota, from the time they are the first gentrifiers of a neighborhood, a perky ideal little family, until Joey takes up with the girl next door, the daughter of a political mistress, and Patty loses it. Next comes a section entitled “Mistakes Were Made,” which is Patty’s autobiography, undertaken as a therapeutic exercise. She reveals the story of her early years growing up largely unloved, a jock in a household of politicians and creatives, her basketball career, her entanglements in college with a stalker, with Richard, with Walter, until it eventually retreads some of the territory of the first section, just from Patty’s POV. The penultimate section of the book is a return to Patty’s POV as she extends her autobiography, this time with a reader other than herself in mind.
In the middle of the book, we get all kinds of craziness. Walter works for an environmental organization dedicated to saving a certain species of song bird, but that also has ulterior motives thanks to its Bush-croney founder, as well as a spin-off ambition related to Walter and his lovely young assistant Lalitha’s pet project, population reduction. A few months ago, I was shocked to notice that the author of the New Yorker article I was reading about song bird depletion was Mr. Franzen–now I get it. Joey ends up embroiled in the Iraq War, dealing with a morally bankrupt defense contract. Everything is complicated on personal, political and ecological levels. Everyone is wrong, but the reader still roots for them, or at least I did.
Freedom was not without aspects I didn’t like–Patty was at times so unsympathetic it felt like Mr. Franzen was only being mean. There were plot points and characters introduced so late in the novel that they seemed, to me, unnecessary. For the most part, though, this was an all-consuming, totally satisfying reading experience. Much has been made over how long it took Mr. Franzen to write this book, but it is so narratively complicated, such attention was paid to each sentence, that I can hardly believe it didn’t take longer. I was so emotionally invested that I cried three times, including on the last page. I was crying half because it was such a gratifying, sad, beautiful ending and half just because it was over.