Have you ever seen a fine miniaturist’s work? One of those hobbyists who create their home town in model form down to the smallest feature. I haven’t either, but I imagine it would be amazing for a few minutes, then I would start analyzing the mind of the craftsman. Is he or she mad? They have all this talent yet no creativity. They spent all their time and energy building something you could simply step outside the front door and see in a truer form.
I know this would be my reaction because I have just finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s mighty tome, Freedom. Freedom tells the story of Patty Berglund and the three men she feels the most for in the world. Except for having been a high school basketball All American there is nothing special to Patty. She has a husband, two kids, a lover, and lots of time on her hands. Franzen’s extraordinary attention to detail allows us to know much more about her life. We learn how she lost her virginity, her family’s genealogy, the nature of her relationship with her siblings. There is no question about her or the other stars of the novel’s lives that the author could not answer. Hell, after reading the book I feel there is nothing about their lives that I couldn’t answer. Just like that miniaturist he got every brick on every building down pat.
But after reading five hundred seventy pages of heavy prose I want something more. Patty and her family are supposed to be every people I suppose. Emblems of the era. But if I just want to hear a story about what the people of my time are like I could talk to my neighbors (who are less self-involved than the protagonists of Freedom, but also probably less complex). Literature, especially that of such vast size, in my mind should give us more than detailed anecdotes. I kind of want some wisdom. And Kris Kristofferson gave more resonance to Freedom in one line than the many hours it took me to get through this novel did.
Putting a magnifying glass under these characters and seeing how empty they are I suppose is the author’s way of showing how empty our times and the people living in them are. But that’s not a message that is very difficult to convey. I could just watch any number of reality television shows to see that.
In spite of my negative tone I did enjoy reading the book. Even though Franzen went out of his way to make them unsympathetic I found myself caring what was going to happen to the characters. I was rooting for them to get a happy ending in spite of their whining and narcissism. And many of them do get a happy ending. But not an inspiring one. And after spending all this time with a book I’d like to learn something about life from it. But the only lesson Freedom offers is ripped off from an old Crosby, Stills, and Nash song. It’s one of the most depressing lines in the history of popular music. If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.
I much preferred what Kris Kristofferson had to say. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.