Friday, July 1, 2011

Review #9: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom is a book about contemporary America. That's the best way that I can sum it up. It follows the lives of Walter and Patty Berglund, a married Minnesotan couple, and, to a lesser extent, their son Jesse and their long-time family friend, Richard Katz. It's hard to describe the storyline without giving too much away. Basically, the books is divided into three sections: the present, the past and the future. Each one deals with Walter and Patty at a different stage in their lives, and intertwines their individual voices with those of Richard and Jesse.

In reality, the storylines themselves don't matter that much--I found most of them to be a bit predictable. Where Franzen truly excels is in his portrayal of the Berglunds themselves. Each and every character is magnificently flawed, and I don't think there's a truly likable person in the entire book. But that's the beauty of it--Franzen doesn't shy away from making his protagonists terrible people, people you simultaneously root for and revile. I hated every character, to the point where I had to put the book down because what was happening was making me feel sick, but I couldn't stop reading. Despite my dislike for the Berglunds, I was truly invested in their story.

For me, reading Freedom was an experience. It was overwhelming and consuming and I had to struggle to remove myself from the fictional world to take a deep breath of reality. It's a difficult read because it's so true to life--Franzen exposes corruption and dishonesty wherever he sees it, which is almost everywhere. However, he maintains a healthy balance between his cynicism and a sense of humor and an appreciation for beauty, which makes it all a bit more palatable.

One other issue I had with the novel is that I think Franzen took on a bit too much. I wish he had focused only on Walter and Patty, because the moments where he switches to Richard's or Jesse's perspective feel too infrequent for them to have much of an impact. He also dropped some storylines as a result, and so the inclusion of these characters' voices--as interesting as they were--were unsatisfactory.

Overall though, these are minor complaints. Even at his weak moments, Franzen is still better than 90% of working authors today. This book was definitely over-hyped as being "important," but it lives up the expectation. Franzen somehow knows exactly how to capture moments in American consciousness. He created it in The Corrections and he creates it again here--a snapshot of what it's like to be an American today.