I Will Not Give You Up

Hard to shake Franzen's Freedom

I Will Not Give You Up

I didn’t plan on reviewing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – and I’m still not, hence this slapdash blog post and not a formal review in this week’s paper – but I finished the book a week ago and still haven’t shook the damn thing, so there you go.

For a little background: I read The Corrections, like seemingly everyone else in America, when it came out in 2001, and I dug it. (So did the National Book Award people.) But nine years later I honestly could not tell you much about the plot, so completely has it receded from my memory. (I tried describing it to my mom recently, and all I could remember was that there was a Midwestern couple, a ne’er do well son doing something – not well, presumably – in the Eastern bloc, and a daughter chef doing something else in in the middle there somewhere. I haven’t cheated and checked Wikipedia to confirm. But seeing as how I read it like so many others in the numbed wake of 9/11, I’m feeling okay about not remembering.)

So, the new book: Yes, there is hype. Massive hype. Great American Novel perpetrated by Great American Novelist kind of hype. And the inevitable backlash, too. I wasn’t thinking much about any of that when I hurriedly tossed the book into my bag when packing for a 5-day trip to Mexico.

Yup, I made Freedom a beach read.

And, yup, my tan suffered for it. (The book certainly did – it’s watermarked like nobody’s business.) Couldn’t put the damn thing down – barely set it aside to see two dear friends get married in sunny, scenic Tulum – and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

Let’s skip the “Great American Novel” business for now – which is politically and socially loaded** – and just ride with “Great Novel.” I didn’t take notes while reading, but even without the critical brain turned on – or maybe most especially with the critical brain turned off – what I took away from the book was the essential pleasure of reading damn fine literary fiction that traffics in Big Ideas but parlays those big ideas in intimate, identifiable human action and observation.

The novel’s locus is the family Berglund: Dad Walter, a conservationist; mom Patty, a college athlete then stay-at-home mom; son Joey, a golden child primed for a tumble; (to a far lesser degree) daughter Jessica, an eloquent and informed activist cut in the mold of her father; and honorary Berglund, rocker Richard Katz – for Walter, the best friend and surrogate brother he never stopped competing with, and, for Patty, the one who (maybe) got away.

The novel is pieced out in large chunks with different narrators; the first part is told by a neighbor of the Berglunds, who barely warrants a blip in later parts, but whose cutting outsider observations of the family inform our interpretation of the characters throughout; followed by Patty’s autobiographical take (told in third person, as encouraged by her therapist); and so on. At first, the discrete narratives felt sloppy – this is not a “clean” novel – but eventually I caught the rhythm, if not necessarily the symmetry, of the structure, and went with it.

I will say I missed Patty whenever her voice took a backseat. When she’s at the forefront, it feels like Franzen has a good hold on the female perspective, but when male narrators run the show, there’s a certain sameness to the sacrificing female characters. There’s altogether too much unthinking female worship of authoritative males (not on Patty’s end – she’s the sharpest stick here, I think).

Every reader comes to a book with certain biases, and if you’d told me in advance that Freedom had a lot to say about overpopulation, I would have yawned through my teeth. And yet: Freedom accomplishes exactly what you want from a Big Ideas kind of book, by presenting those big ideas within the framework of the narrative. Walter’s passion about overpopulation and wildlife/landscape preservation– and the inevitable push/pull between his ideology and his day-to-day way of life – is compellingly wrought, and frankly, the statistics Franzen rolls off regarding the unsustainability of life as we know it – always in service of the character – are blood-curdling.

In terms of identifying a tipping point and tracking the downward trajectory we (meaning humans: gender, race, nationality nonspecific) are all slip-sliding down – essentially, that the wars we fight are misbegotten, the lands we live in are irrevocably trashed – this is the most alarming, and galvanizing, piece of literary fiction I’ve read in years.

So back to that pesky issue of Great American Novel. Regardless of what Franzen has to say – and I suppose I’ve made a point of not trying to know what he has to say, outside the book itself – there’s no way of avoiding that this is, as so many have already noted, a “The Way We Live Now” (hat tip, Trollope) kind of look at America, circa right now, and isn't remotely sentimental about the way we used to live, even so close as five years ago.

Some of it’s obvious – certainly in its up-to-minute condemnation of the piss-poor armament of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan – and some of it is more coded (I got a strong whiff of Bon Iver in the case of Richard Katz’s late-breaking, career-making record, dedicated to Patty, but that’s pure speculation). But when it comes to the argument that this is “Great” and “American” for only a certain segment of the populace (read: white, male, affluent), I think that’s a reductionist way of looking at the thing (at least from this white, female, lower middle class perspective).

Freedom has things to say – Big Ideas and more minute, but no less significant ones, too – about the sacrifices we make to live with and love other people; about the conscious betrayals we make, despite living with and loving other people, to assert our own identities; and about the arduous evolution of those relationships, with their ever in-progress negotiations, renewals, detentes, and demonstrations of love, sometimes hot, sometimes cool.

I’m also, frankly, not sure how much my appreciation of the book was defined by the context surrounding my reading of it (and how marvelous is it that books, put out to a broad audience, become so deeply personal to readers, so informed by the circumstances unique to our reading of them?). But certainly as I was in the process of reading it, I was witness to two deeply good people marrying each other, an event further weighted by a reading of a Tom Robbins passage that emphasized to be loved, one must love first – something a lot of us assume is the other way around, or merely shrug off as a chicken and the egg thing.

Which is all to say: Loving, in whatever form it takes – romantic, sexual, sibling, friend – is endlessly complicated, and this book has a lot to say about all of the above. Also: I’m kind of in love with this book. (And definitely loving that it’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue, and excited that enthusiasm for this literature might spill over into a discussion of more overlooked books, too.)

And I want everyone else to read it so we can talk about it. 
 OK, ready?


Jonathan Franzen will give a reading at BookPeople (6th & Lamar) on Friday, Sept. 17.

** Who’s America? Whose American experience? So long as Franzen isn’t arguing he’s speaking for the whole of the American experience, why should I hold him to that impossible standard? I understand this is at least in part a question of who controls the content – who puts what book front and center, who dictates the dialogue – but as a Books editor who assigns features and reviews, I certainly should be held to task for contributing to any kind of near-sightedness in coverage. I know that the Chron has some very savvy readers out there, and I’d love to hear who you think I should be highlighting in our pages and on our webspace. Comment below or shoot me an email at kjones@austinchronicle.com.

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