August: Jonathan Franzen – Freedom
I know what you’re thinking. Jonathan Franzen, *eye roll.* He’s just another privileged white male novelist who gets more attention than the just-as-phenomenal likes of similar writers, such as Meg Wolitzer, Jennifer Egan, my girl Zadie Smith, Dana Spiotta, etc., etc. Others will say he’s kind of an ass. (He does like to go on kind of long rants that almost always rail against the use of modern technology.) I know, I get it. What I have to say to this is: Franzen is a gifted writer, and we shouldn’t deny that. This was my third time through with Freedom, and it still smacks me over the head with its brilliance. This book was the catalyst to me becoming serious about writing fiction, because from it, I learned what fiction can do. Call me crazy. Or maybe, just maybe, I’m right (??)
What it is so fascinating about Freedom is the intimacy Franzen has with his characters. (And it’s not just Freedom. In 2001’s The Corrections, for example, Franzen actually mentions the scent of another character’s scalp. Twice.) His characters are created with every single angle already thought out: they are fully realized, multi-faceted, filled with all the human inconsistencies of every person we know, making it clear that Franzen has done the grunt work of spending a lot of time in each character’s head. As a reader, we care for each character deeply, understanding their motivations and empathizing with their faults, even when we don’t agree with the choices they make. I caught myself thinking of Patty Berglund—analyzing her decisions, considering aspects of her personality—for months after my first read. That’s the power that Franzen has.
He’s not an experimental novelist. His sentences are powerful (and sometimes difficult), yes, but he’s not exactly reinventing the wheel. At the heart of the story is a family drama, with everything you’d expect: love, friendship, marriage, deception, infidelity, and a revealing memoir that gives the game away. But Franzen doesn’t need to change anything. He takes the beauty of the third-person novel pioneered by early Russian and European realists, and creates a modern-day tale, brilliantly weaving a family drama with real-time U.S. political tumult.
I’ve heard the complaint that Freedom goes on longer than it needs to. “We get it, we get it,” the critics say. We don’t need to know about Walter’s alcoholic father and brother, or the generations of Patty’s liberal-to-their-fault half-Jewish New York family. I have to say, readers who have this complaint do not, in my opinion, fully understand Franzen as a writer. It’s not about how many side stories he can tell to extend the novel, or about how many polysyllabic words he can pack into a sentence. It’s about ensuring that each reader has a full, comprehensive understanding of every aspect of the characters with whom we spend over 500 pages. Freedom is a study of modern humanity through the microscopic lens of just one Minnesota family, the Berglunds, and all of the people who influence their lives and decisions, proving the point that life never turns out the way we think it will. Franzen writes his characters just as they are: incredibly flawed, with plenty of feelings and judgments and conflicts. Just like the rest of us.
Poor Walter. First he’d set aside his acting and filmmaking dreams out of a sense of financial obligation to his parents, and then no sooner had his dad set him free by dying than he teamed up with Patty and set aside his planet-saving aspirations and went to work for 3M, so that Patty could have her excellent old house and stay home with the babies. The whole thing happened almost without discussion. He got excited about the plans that excited her, he threw himself into renovating the house and defending her against her family. It wasn’t until years later—after Patty had begun to Disappoint him—that he became more forgiving of the other Emersons and insisted that she was the lucky one, the only Emerson to escape the shipwreck and survive to tell the tale. He said that Abigail, who’d been left stranded to scavenge emotional meals on an island of great scarcity (Manhattan Island!), should be forgiven for monopolizing conversations in her attempt to feed herself. He said that Patty should pity her siblings, not blame them, for not having the strength or the luck to get away: for being so hungry. But this all came much later. In the early years, he was so fired up about Patty, she could do no wrong. And very nice years they were.