I have to tell you that I did not feel any freedom while reading ‘Freedom’. I felt interested in the beginning, then irritated, then bored, moved onto faintly disgusted and finally I just felt a sense of duty to finish the damn book. And I did finish it, despite nearly giving up a few times. That might have been because I want to be able to say that I have read the book by the author who is claimed to be the best author of the decade, but it might also be because I had just enough interest in the characters to keep going.
The novel tracks the lives of a couple, Walter and Patty Berglund, who start off seeming to be the ideal couple,typically ‘good’ Americans, and then life starts to fall apart for them. Patty has an affair with an old friend of theirs, their son moves in with the Republican family next door and ends up marrying the daughter; Walter becomes maniacally involved in environmental issues, and sexually involved with one of his colleagues. So, yes, the novel does expose the normal lives of everday people, which is one of the reasons it has been lauded. It plays with the notion of freedom, and the effects of too much choice – but it carried on being too much of everything for me: suburbia, blow jobs, fading musicians, lost dreams, stereotypical ‘green’ issues, vomit, vomit.
I’m not quibbling about the writing. Franzen writes well, really well and is easy to read. I wish I could write like him.
My main problem with the book – and I’m worried that I am too shallow a reader as a result – is that I couldn’t ‘see’ the characters. I have no idea in my mind what Patty Berglund looks like. She obviously was supposed to be very attractive, but the only image that came up for me was that of a giraffe-like basketball player. I could see Walter a bit more easily (a nice guy, like your next-door-neighbour; nice looking and friendly) and perhaps the ageing rocker, Richard, who I imagined would look like a cleaner and younger version of Keith Richards. I couldn’t get the son at all. And because I couldn’t see them, I was unable to identify with their stories and so lost interest in the characters.
Some of the reviews have commented on how the novel comically captures the characters’ lives, but believe me, I didn’t have a whisp of a smile cross my face, not even a sneer. I was poker-faced throughout (or falling asleep).
One of the narrative devices irritated me as well, which disturbed my flow of reading. Patty is advised to write an ‘autobiography’ by her therapist and excerpts are inserted into the story, I suppose to give us more insight into the main protagonist. However, Patty writes it in the third person, referring to herself as ‘Patty’ and for some reason, it irritated me so much that I could hardly bear to read those sections.
I don’t get what all the fuss is about. But what worries me is that I didn’t even have that reaction of ‘yes, I can see it is well-written and a good story but I didn’t enjoy it’. I just don’t know why Jonathan Franzen is considered such a good novelist that he was put on the cover of Time Magazine. Apparently “The Corrections” was very readable. I want to give that a try next and see if I can get a glimpse of the man’s supposed literary greatness.