Monday, October 04, 2010


I suppose, since I just finished the book last night, that I should put up my thoughts about Jonathan Franzen's Freedom before I read any more reviews of it (Why do I do this? I read/listen to/watch something and then see what other people thought!?!) or let too much time pass. Why am I putting up my thoughts about the book? I guess it's just because I can, because it's not because the book changed my life (maybe that remains to be seen--I did just finish it last night) or that I think it has something extremely important to say that people need to hear (I'm thinking of those nonfiction books that I want people to read. Against Love, for me, falls into this category) or because it will improve the world. I guess I just want to tell people that the book lives up to the hype, and that y'all should read it, just as I would with a superior movie or taco salad or something. So here we are.

Like I just mentioned, I have to do this now, while the book is fresh in my mind. Because I almost feel like I'm in a state similar to mourning. I choose that word deliberately, because most of us who have read about the book are aware that there is a death in it. And that this death may feel like it's too convenient for the story or that it's improbable. Maybe. And maybe the character wasn't as completely fleshed out as the others (maybe not; I'm not a literary critic), but those criticisms didn't bother my enjoyment of the book. And the way the character's death is dealt with in the end is still deeply affecting, and I think that it justifies the entirety of the subplot. Just to lead to the book's final sentence. So there!

Now I'll get into a rehash of what I wrote for the review on linkedin, perhaps with some additions. Keep in mind that, as I said, I'm no literary critic, so if you're expecting a synopsis of the plot and quotes from the book and trenchant analysis and all that gawizzlywozzlyfinoo, then you might want to read the many fine reviews that exist out there in the literary landscape. I'm sure they're there (see that? I may not be a lit critic, and I may be stupid as a pile of doll hair, but at least I can respect the difference between they're, there and their. Recognize, b9itches! Not me---recognize the words!!! There, I saids it.) at the NYTimes and BBC and the Guardian la la la.... All those places. So, well, yeah.

I bought this book a while ago, and let it sit for a week, maybe two, daunted by its 562 pages, and finished some shorter books before even thinking of tackling it. When I started it, though, I was very pleased to find that it reads with the same breathless, page-turning pace as any Stephen King book or trash novel (for the dim bulbs out there, this is a GOOD thing). 300 pages into it I realized that I didn't want the book to end. I wanted it to stretch out to thousands of pages. The story lines and how they're presented--it's so compelling that you don't want the journey to end.

I was surprised to find myself gasping aloud at twists I didn't see coming, becoming excited to see plots begin to intertwine and become clear, and (most surprising of all) to find myself weeping during the last chapter, most especially at the final sentence (although after the final sentence, perhaps bawling is the more appropriate word; I mentioned there's a death; the bawling I felt conspicuously mirrored, although in a milder fashion, the experience I once had upon hearing that someone close to me had passed). The book is, above all, heartbreaking, but not in the sense of an all-consuming tragedy. (It's not Dancer in the Dark, which I confess to not having seen, but which was described to me as the opposite of those films that are nauseatingly sweetness and light and preposterous happiness. Apparently DitD is more preposterous despair. Well, that's how it was described to me.) I could venture to say that the book has a happy ending, in so far as it can, with the nature of the characters and, let's face it, the nature of this life.

I doubt I even have to mention it, but the book is more than heartbreaking--it's brilliantly, virtuosically written. (Is that a word, virtuosically? Well, it should be, if it isn't.) All the characters felt imminently real, as if I knew them well. And I felt like I could also see parts of myself in most of them. A few characters in the book are only briefly sketched out, but those are minor characters. When I think about how the characters are so fully developed, each having hir own psychology and quirks and flaws (if not voice--sure, maybe Franzen doesn't vary their individual voices enough, and yes, one character's autobiography reads just like Franzen's writing, but my though is, "Who cares?! Suspension of disbelief, people." Besides, her autobiographical excursion is long and necessary to the story. I'd rather read it in Franzen's voice. AND a character does note later that Patty, the autobiographer, expresses herself very well. At least Franzen doesn't torture us by writing the characters in dialect. One of the character's has a slight Indian accent. Franzen doesn't write in her accent when he gives her quotes, and thanks flunking cod! I've always found that distracting and annoying, and I'm very glad that Franzen does not do it in this book.), I can't helprecalling a quote from Fernando Pessoa, when in describing a store clerk's suicide, he notes that there are characters in books that are more real to him than the faces he sees every day on the trams or in the streets. Pessoa had characters like the ones in this book in mind. I can tell you that I feel more intimacy with Patty or Walter Berglund than I do with a lot of people I saw every day at work or on the subway. It's Franzen's uncanny ability to describe human feeling and illuminate his characters' inner worlds that makes them spring off the page and make them real to you. Some, I think, have said that his characters are unlikeable. I didn't find that at all. I found them human, complicated, real. There were even a couple I was rooting against, which I think added to the novel's feeling of realism.

I realize that I'm not conveying here the full extent of Franzen's accomplishment in this book. His humor, his incisiveness, etc. I refer you to more competent reviewers for those points.

Now that I've read all 562 pages, I'm a little sad to be finished with it, a sadness I liken to the end of a great holiday (and, of course, which I relate, perhaps too much in the moment, to the grief of bereavement). I have another fiction book waiting to be read, but I may wait a day or two for this experience to wear off before venturing into it. Especially since the other book could almost certainly never compare to Freedom.

On a purely semantic note, I also have to mention that it felt strange, just after I finished the book, to be at "the end of freedom."

In conclusion, if you read nothing else this year, read Freedom. You will not be disappointed.


Sunday, October 03, 2010