Friday, December 09, 2011

On finally finding Franzen's Freedom

So there's this book out? It's called Freedom? Jonathan Franzen wrote it and it's all the rage! Oh, wait, this isn't 2010. Heck, it's hardly even 2011 anymore. However, never let it be said that I don't follow literary trends. I just don't follow them at the same time as everyone else.

All this is to say that I am finally reading Freedom, an activity I'd actually been dreading. Having read the excerpt in the New Yorker, and then the zillions of sugar-and-or-bile-coated reviews, I had formed certain expectations, the most notable being that Franzen would be condescending to his characters, especially his female characters. As much as I loved The Corrections, I sensed this condescension, even contempt, and the New Yorker excerpt of Freedom seemed to have the same whiff about it, only in spades.

Well, this does turn out to be true in Freedom. With the caveat that I have not finished the book, I would say that the portrayal of Patty does seem to come from an on-high, nose-wrinkled perch. Her "autobiography" in particular is puzzling in its language. It's supposedly her own work, and seems to show an intentional lack of familiarity with the finer cultural attainments , but it also contains numerous Franzenian displays of wit and acuity that a character like this would, by the author's own definition, not be capable of.

And yet the damn thing is riveting. I cannot wait to sit down with the book at the end of the day, and as soon as I open it, I am absorbed. Why? How? First off, although the author seems unable to directly overcome his condescension, it also seems he has found a way to work with it, so that it becomes an integral part of the story rather than working against it. The novel so far is starting to look like the author's battle with his own schadenfreude toward bourgeois mediocrity. And I think that's a battle more of us are fighting than we might like to admit. Everyone, truly, knows about jealousy and the joy of discovering that one's seemingly perfect neighbors or coworkers or whomever don't have it all, after all.

But what are we to do with this embarrassing recognition of our own failings to be sympathetic and good and decent? A lesser author might revel in it, but Franzen does not. He seems to use this discomfort with his authorial stance to drive himself to find deeper compassion for his characters. Whatever schadenfreude he and we are experiencing does not reduce the characters to cartoons: quite the opposite. Patty and the other characters are portrayed with such careful detail, such nuance, such understandable ambivalence and contradiction, that I, at least, have ended up rooting for them more than I might have in a less overdetermined portrait.

Also, let's face it, the book is something of a soap opera. Neighborhood spats, filial dynamics gone terribly wrong, guilt-ridden yet passionate love affairs...Plus it's quite funny.

So, hey, check out this new book by this budding young talent. Remember, you heard it here last.

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