Aside from a few snarky tweets, I’ve tried to hold my tongue on the Franzenfreude brouhaha.* I’ve also largely managed to steer clear of every review of Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, reason being that I wanted to come at the book with as fresh a perspective as possible. But let’s be honest here: I love Franzen’s work, so I’m already a little biased in his favor.
Sure enough, I loved this book. Loved the writing, loved the eloquence, loved the nuance with which the characters were written. I even teared up at one point. The first part of the book is utterly mesmerizing. The politics in the second part got pedantic at times, but by the end, one can see they served their purpose well. I could probably gush on and on, but it seems you can’t turn a corner without running smack into a gushing review of Freedom (though I’m sure now that the book is out, the negative reviews will also commence in earnest).
What I prefer to talk about instead are the dismissals of this book as The Corrections Redux. Both books are set in the Midwest and revolve around families that are very easy to dislike; several characters treat readers to heavy doses of upper middle class elitism. Both books have a son go off on questionable get-rich-quick schemes abroad. Both books even have entire scenes solely devoted to shit. Actual shit.**
But where The Corrections can be boiled down to family dysfunction, Freedom is much more sprawling in scope. At its root, Freedom is about family relationships, but it is also about overpopulation, the environment, politics, the numerous faults of society in general, and of course, the concept of freedom (i.e., is anybody ever really free?). Time and again, the characters kept running into emotional and psychological walls when they should have been at their freest.
And though he is often dismissed for writing about white Midwesterners (thus alienating people), I also distinctly recall people praising Franzen for his nuanced handling of rape, race, and class when his short story, Agreeable, was published in The New Yorker a few months ago. The story is actually an excerpt that appears early in Freedom, and is all the more powerful in the larger context of the book. Furthermore, as with my response to The Corrections, I could absolutely see myself in these characters. I live in a completely different world and have a different background? But I still see myself in them. It’s what I love about Franzen’s writing.