Monday, September 27, 2010


Jonathan Franzen just might be the hottest name in publishing this month. His long-awaited new novel flooded bookstore shelves at the end of last month, with people lined up to grab a copy of Mr Franzen’s first book since his 2001 National Book Award winner, The Corrections. Nine years is a long wait, but I will waste no time in saying that it was worth the wait. The new book is Freedom, and should surprise no one if it too racks up a list of prizes.

But why the nine years between books? Some of the reasons come out in the Time magazine cover story by Lev Grossman, which appeared last August 23. Franzen described the writing process as even more difficult than the seven years he spent writing The Corrections. In his words, “It was a bitch. It really was.” There is always some backlash to success, and Franzen’s post-National Book Award days were no exception. His situation was also complicated by a flap he had with Oprah Winfrey after she picked his book for her book club. He took a beating in the press for what commentators described as disrespectful remarks about Ms Winfrey. In the end, she uninvited him from her show, though left her all-important ‘Oprah’s Book Club’ seal on The Corrections.

Progress on Freedom was further held up by problems of theme and voice. The writer began with the idea of a novel about the environment written in the first person. That didn’t work for him, so he dropped it. It may then have been the death of his best friend, novelist David Foster Wallace that lifted Franzen over the hump and gave him the energy and inspiration he needed to finish Freedom.

This is a huge novel in the sense of its characters and its themes. Again, as he did in The Corrections, Franzen builds his story around a family. But the singular is misleading here, because the incredible depth of the story involves the people of four families. Basically, Freedom is the story of Patty and Walter Berglund, their long marriage, their emotional struggles and the myth of ‘freedom’ that we Americans hold so dear, and by which our values have become so ignominiously distorted. It is a novel too, of politics and environment, and how one has mercilessly plundered the other.

To employ that word again, huge is an apt term for Franzen’s canvas. It is almost misleading to say that the book is about Patty and Walter Berglund, because Franzen’s lens is so wide. He gives us not only the minute facets and multi-layers of their lives, but their entire culture, political conditions and social history as well. Grossman in his Time interview used a particularly good phrase to describe the Franzen perspective: ‘…a devotee of the wide-shot, the all-embracing, way-we-live-now novel.’

Franzen has the rare skill of making his characters and pages gripping without resorting to slam dunk plot maneuvers. He writes in a way that puts the reader on tenterhooks in merely following a description of someone boiling water or setting out the cups and saucers. The writer shapes his words and story fully aware of the need to hold onto his reader, that the distractions for a reader today are pounding on every door and window. Television, cell phones, email and Internet are the novelist’s competition in today’s world, and Franzen seems well equipped to take them on. The characters in his books are densely, almost microscopically conceived, in a way that we never for a moment question their authenticity. There are times when their presence on the page is as real as the person on the other side of the bed. It is these characters that bind us to a story sprawling, diverse and crossing decades as effortlessly as state lines.

Beneath all the supporting themes in Freedom, more driving than sub-themes of environment, celebrity, gentrification, politics and personal freedom, is the love story of the two central characters. In the words of Patty Berglund, theirs is “a terrible confusion of the heart,”

This is a great novel which will probably win for Franzen another armload of awards—Oprah has already put her sticker on the book, passing out copies to her studio audience—but it must be said that portions of the book slip into soap box sermonizing by the author. A number of Walter’s passions are those of Franzen himself, and we see the writer behind the Walter persona. Anyone who has read one or two Franzen interviews could most likely tell you that the writer, like Walter Berglund, is vehemently against such things as free roaming bird-killing cats, consumerism, iPods and texting. But these sometime appearances of the writer speaking through his characters is not anything that seriously impairs the achievement of an impressively crafted novel of astonishing dimension.

Buy it or borrow it; read it and then try to convince someone you were bored. Little likelihood such will be the case.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America