Heavy Reading — Freedom By Jonathan Franzen

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.

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4 thoughts on “Heavy Reading — Freedom By Jonathan Franzen

  1. In life, people long for something more, so it makes sense that you look for something more in storytelling.

    Just like a movie, me being the buff that I am, you want something more out of what entertains you than cold, hard facts. I was watching Dinner for Schmucks last night, great flick by the way, and when it got to the end and the bad guys got what they deserved, and the good guys got what they always wanted, that’s how life should be. But that’s not how reality is. To quote the little boy from Last Action Hero, “This world stinks!” But to quote what Ah-nold replied with, “The world is what you make of it.”

    In my own writing I’ve taken great criticism from a select few that decided to actually read my first book I wrote, The Civilization Loop. In almost every case the reviewer heavily criticised the use of what they called “religious beliefs” throughout the book. They accused me of ramming those beliefs down peoples’ throats and such. Those types of reviews are hard to take because it’s pretty obvious the person missed the point of the story. Yes, I did incorporate religious beliefs I have into the text, but any good writer writes about what they know well. They put themselves into the story, especially the first one they have ever written. What these statements have made me realize is that I do in fact believe the existence of God, more than I ever imagined, because it flowed from my subconscience to the page. But that’s not for everyone, obviously.

    This writer of Freedom, it just seems he understands the reality of people and tries his best to express it in his writing. Perhaps it is too specific, but it’s what he knows. And it still captivated you despite any negative feelings you had, because you did in fact finish the book. But it’s hard to not want something more from a story, I know I do. That’s partly the reason I started writing my own.

    Life is full of regurgitation and remorseless, senseless flattery, but every now and then you have to take a machete to the ambiguity so you can find something worthwhile.

    I hope that made sense and even applies.

  2. My problem wasn’t that it was about a specific type of person or people I find disagreeable or uninteresting. My problem with Freedom is that in his depiction of these specific people he doesn’t leave us with an interesting point or moral to the story. If you’re going to ask readers to invest the time it takes to read 562 pages of heavy prose I fully expect you to do something more than point out how empty the people of today’s lives are.
    The best case motive I can see why Franzen wrote this book was that if you live a life as self-involved as the characters in Freedom, reading an accurate portrayal will make you stand up and live a more interesting life. But just like gangster rap didn’t stop the Bloods and Crips from pulling drive-by shootings, a cynical portrayal of the materialistic middle-age and their hipster offspring tends to glamorize the lifestyle rather than causing people to shun it.

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