Review: Freedom (2010) by Jonathan Franzen   Leave a comment

“Humanity,” Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote in Being and Nothingness, “is condemned to be free.” So too it might be said that readers of contemporary fiction are condemned to tackle Jonathan Franzen’s fourth novel Freedom, a work that arrived, after a hiatus of nine years, in a flurry of triumph and acclaim. Certainly “condemned” is a good word to describe how I felt about it by the time I got to the end.

Franzen is one of those writers that people know about by word of mouth. His breakthrough novel, The Corrections, is a book that you are likely to discover in the process of unwrapping a birthday present from your uncle and aunt in Connecticut, the kind of work that an overexcited friend from your graduate school days presses into your hand and says: “You have to read this. It blew my mind.”

I don’t mind admitting that I, too, caught the fever. I started reading The Corrections on a plane to Los Angeles at the beginning of last year, and by the time I finished it I had already started formulating plans to get my own family together for Christmas for the first time in more than a decade. While I found Franzen’s style unattractive and pretentious, there was something real and identifiable about his characters that won me over. The author’s apparent cruelty I saw as a necessary detachment on Franzen’s part, important to shading the moral grays that turned each of the Lamberts into well-rounded, believable characters. As a consequence, I also went back and read his first two novels, which were solid enough but did not reach the same heights as The Corrections.

It was with a sense of anticipation, then, that I began reading Freedom a few days ago. I was patient. I was hopeful. As I got deeper into the novel, however, there was no getting around the looming conclusion: Freedom was downright awful. By the time I reached the three-hundred page mark, just over halfway, finishing the book really did feel like a prison sentence. Dutifully, I served my time.

So what can account for this spectacular failure? How can Franzen strike such a chord with The Corrections and then come across as so utterly tone-deaf in Freedom?

Before recounting its shortcomings, I should first say what it is that I liked about Freedom. After all, I did not expect it to be an unmitigated disaster from the very beginning, and it certainly did not feel that it was going to be while reading the initial stages of the story. Other reviewers have complained that the central characters of Patty and Walter were too dull to carry the story, a view with which I heartily disagree. Although Patty’s stilted “autobiography” (which Franzen, for no good reason, writes in a third-person voice that is indistinguishable from the rest of the narrative) is an incredibly clumsy approach for an established novelist, I found Franzen’s depiction of their tepid romance and marriage, especially the little details of the ways in which they repeatedly hurt and betray each other, to be painfully real. This element of insight in Franzen’s writing is what made The Corrections so successful, this feeling that while reading his novel you are also undergoing a painful but necessary session of emotional therapy.

Apart from the Berglund’s disintegrating marriage, however, there was little to admire about Freedom. What made the early pages of the novel interesting was Franzen’s critique of the ways in which human beings delude themselves. Thus, for instance, we witness Patty being led astray by her drug-addicted, emotionally manipulative college friend Eliza, who preys on Patty’s guilt and lack of esteem in order control the latter’s life. Similar spirals of reactive (should I say “corrective”?) behavior are set up throughout, from Joey’s reaction to his parents to Patty’s desire for Richard.

The novel thus provides the reader with a litany of self-destructive, guilt-ridden, passive characters – a lot like The Corrections, you might say, but here is the strange thing. Whereas Franzen, in the early stages of the novel, highlights the negative effects that flow from the weakness and endless self-pity that motivate his characters, by the second half of the novel he attempts to transform these same horrible qualities into virtues. Walter, in particular, is supposedly redeemed by the contention that his inherited negativity gives his life “meaning.” Despite the utter betrayal of his own ethical standards and his staggeringly grandiose sense of self-righteousness, Walter is excused, in the narrator’s eyes, because he is a “nice man.” Even Walter’s loser brother, Mitch, a worthless drunk who shirks all responsibility for his five children, is transformed into a kind of Thoreauvian hero by the end, living peacefully by a lake and only working when he has to. It’s a bizarre and bewildering moral u-turn that Franzen takes, down a path where I simply cannot follow him.

My increasing disillusionment with the novel as I was reading it only served to highlight other technical flaws that I might otherwise have been willing to overlook. I have already mentioned my dislike for Franzen’s style in his earlier works, but in Freedom this pretentiousness reaches a level that is simply unbearable. I teach my students to read literary texts closely on the grounds that authors choose their references and metaphors carefully, but Franzen’s frantic need to provide in-depth descriptions of inane, unnecessary details and endless name-dropping was too much. Consider, for instance, this ridiculous sentence from the novel’s epilogue (by which point I was at the end of my patience) in which Franzen makes a horrible contrast between the artificiality of the social networking site Twitter to the authenticity of birds in nature:

“There was plenty of tweeting on Twitter, but the chirping and fluttering world of nature, which Walter had invoked as if people were still supposed to care about it, was one anxiety too many.” (p.546)

To make matters worse, there are numerous other occasions where Franzen not only constructs hopelessly unwieldy metaphors, but also proceeds to insult the reader’s intelligence by explaining the symbolism: he makes a lazy parallel, for instance, between Jenna’s manipulation of Joey and the dubious loyalty shown to him by his right-wing political connections (p.401); the comparison of Patty’s split from Richard to America’s withdrawal from Vietnam (p.510); and, worst of all, the analogy between Joey’s grotesque search through his own feces for his wedding ring to his arms deal in South America, the difference being that “there was no gold ring hidden in this particular pile of shit” (p.441). No, indeed, there was not.

When I started reading Freedom, I thought I had some idea, based on my reading of his earlier novels, of what Franzen was setting out to achieve. What is most disappointing about Freedom is not that it is a failure, but that it is a betrayal of the kind of unrelenting emotional honesty that I once thought I detected in Franzen’s work. A great writer is one who invites you to resist them and wins you over anyway, which is what happened to me with The Corrections. Freedom, by contrast, seems like a miscalculated attempt to preach to a particular section of the choir, and surely Franzen, who early on in the novel takes Walter to task for being unattractive precisely because he is so passively agreeable, should have understood this same dynamic in his readers.

Rating: 1/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted February 4, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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