The post where I try to review Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom through the prism (if that’s the right word) of some quotes from the author, in an ultimately futile attempt to do something different around a book that has been written about enough already

by Steve

Jonathan Franzen signing booksSo, over the lovely long weekend I finally finished Jonathan’s Franzen’s Freedom. Is there anything new to say about this book? I doubt it, as it has probably been the most talked-about book of the last 12 months. How’s that for a terrible intro, readers?

We bloggers are forever fighting a losing battle as it is, as unless we buy a book on its release day (or somehow manage to get our hands on an advance copy – a highly unlikely development for most) we are always playing catch-up with the mainstream press, will always come second with our conclusions, and will generally end up perilously close to veering into owl criticism.

That is not say to that if I was given any particular book to read in advance that I’d be able to produce a review with any real insight or depth. And in saying that, I’m not trying to lay some faux-modest bait to encourage comments along the lines of “But Steve, you do offer real insight!” in order to stroke my fragile ego. And in using the word “faux” I’m not trying for that “use French to appear clever and/or cultured” shortcut. And in heading down this particular cul-de-sac (More French!) I’m essentially proving the point of the first sentence of this paragraph.

Still, I enjoyed the book (what it lacks in owls it makes up for with Cerulean Warblers), and has been thought-provoking enough for me to plough on anyway, and spill my thoughts across the screen, you lucky things.

The fuss around Freedom was pretty striking, and at the heart of that was Franzen the reluctant interviewee. I think that despite this Franzen has plenty of interesting things to say outside his fiction. I’ve come to this conclusion after polishing off his book of essays, How To Be Alone, that I read alongside Freedom, and from the glut of articles and interviews with/about/from Franzen in the last year or so.

So…I figured I’d try to frame my Freedom thoughts around some quotes from the man himself.

It’s a stupid phrase and it’s used by people who are not friends of the novel. Maybe it’s different in the UK but in the US it’s a condescending thing that non-readers say when they hear you’re a writer: “Oh you’re writing the Great American Novel are you…”

As ironic as the title Freedom may or may not be, by calling the book Freedom and making various “freedoms” key to the themes of the book, Franzen is kind of setting the book up as a Big Serious Book, if not a Great American Novel. Ideas around what freedom means, and what it means to be American have always been interlinked. The word and the concept have been contorted and co-opted in all manner of ways in the past ten years. By addressing that so directly, Franzen can’t really avoid the GAN comparisons/accusations.

In terms of sheer size and sweep, Freedom feels like a Major Novel. But…I do kind of get his point and his gripe. While it tackles some big issues, it is at a basic level some sort of modern family saga. And if he did openly proclaim he was writing any sort of Great Novel he would probably come across a bit silly. Plus Freedom is a cool, marketable title, while The Cerulean Warbler or Walter and Patty’s Marriage really aren’t.

Maybe I’m doomed as a novelist never to do anything but stories of midwestern families.

The only other Franzen novel I’ve read is The Corrections, and that book and Freedom have plenty in common. Family stories, chapters told from different family members’ perspectives, the use of the title throughout the book in many different senses, ill-considered japes abroad etc etc.

I probably did end up playing “Spot the Similarity” one too many times, but that may be my fault, rather than Franzen’s. I do, however, appreciate that a story about a family is as good a vessel as any for discussing what is bothering you, or generally addressing popular culture, the human condition, the State of the Nation and so on.

However, by the end, I was far more interested in what happened to the family, than in what Franzen has to say about climate change or Iraq or Wilco. I guess this makes him a better storyteller than polemicist. Or, that I’ve come to the conclusion that Franzen is a bit of a grump.

Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.

This is from his ten rules for writing, and I like it. But…it seems like he goes to great lengths to avoid writing in the first person. The conceit of one of the characters writing a memoir, and that taking up a portion of the book, is a brilliant one. However, having her write in the third person, and the contortions required in some sentences to make it work, was perhaps a step too far. Plus, Patty seems to write awfully like Jonathan Franzen, but that might just be me being one of those mean internet basement-dwellers.

I was very conscious of being done with satire, of no longer having an interest in wowing the reader with every sentence. I was trying to forget for a while – forget glittery, bejewelled writing, forget modernism, forget postmodernism – let’s just be with these four people…I can’t stress enough how that word was the rallying cry. Make it adequate! I didn’t want to bore the reader, but all it had to be was OK. It didn’t have to be great.

I think this might be the ultimate Franzen on Freedom quote for me. Some of the writing is breathtaking, the opening in particular, and also many other passages dotted throughout the book that are carefully and beautifully written. Yet my overall impression was that the story was the focus, rather than any literary fireworks.

And I think in choosing between the two (story over fireworks), he made the right choice. If every page was written to the level and detail of some of those key passages the book may well have collapsed under its own weight. And considering it took him nearly ten years to write (off and on, mostly off by the sounds of it), we’d still be waiting for it now if he had gone down that route.

The “adequateness” of the prose somehow makes the book far more human than it might have been. It didn’t need to be clever, or post-modern or whatever to serve its needs. It also allowed me as the reader enough space to think “around” the issues and the style of the book. And if a book makes me think, it has done its job, as far as I’m concerned.

It is a great book, it’s just not A Great Book – but Franzen wasn’t setting out to write one of those anyway.

So, what did you make of Freedom?

Image by renaatje via Flickr

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