Friday, October 29, 2010

Franzen's Freedom

I'm two thirds of the way through Jonathan Franzen's newest epic, Freedom. It's everything I expected and more. Discussion has been going on here at work for a few weeks between those of us who loved The Corrections and the other who couldn't take it. I'll admit that the families in his earlier book held few redeeming qualities - though some of the scenes came right out of my childhood - (which I thought was fairly idyllic). You've got to have a sense of humor, right?

Someone who seems to be lacking that humor is author Jodie Picoult. I'm not sure I understand her ire at the publicity and honors that Franzen is receiving but it certainly seems overblown. I'm all for exhibiting a healthy dose of self confidence but for her to put herself in the same literary category as Franzen is just simply unrealistic. To say that women are consistently left out of literary awards and acknowledgement seems inaccurate as well. What about Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel?
Perhaps, after looking over her recent interview on the Huffington Post, her gripe is more about publicity rather then respect. However, if I had her bank account I don't think I'd be whining.

Anyway, back to Freedom which I find myself unable to put down. Ironically, I've been fighting off a major autumn cold for the past ten days and have been sleepless and hacking half the night away. This incident has afforded me the opportunity to read during the wee hours so I may actually have the book back to the library relatively close to deadline!
The Berglund family, around whom the action swirls, is a kinder, gentler, version of the family in The Corrections. Their issues seem to be less black and white; a much more nuanced portrayal of the day in/day out intricacies of holding together a related unit of wildly divergent personalities brought together by the accident of birth and the choice of marriage, made like so many of them, at an age when the protagonists are just too darn young and unformed.

Franzen can be downright hilarious, not in the laugh out loud funny way, but in the wincing "ouch" kind of way, as he skewers the left, the right, and all the inbetweens. This is a very political novel in which people with the best of intentions  turn absolutely Machiavellian in their aim to achieve their goals. Take, for instance, Walter Berglund's burning desire to save a blue warbler at the risk of getting into bed with the Bush/Cheney crew that will scrape raw the West Virginia mountaintops to achieve a 100 year gain. It's all end justifies means and he's encouraged in his quest by a young, dewy-eyed assistant who takes advantage of the rift between the long-married Walter and Patty to insert herself while Walter is at his weakest.

Patty, meanwhile, is sunk in apathy and depression as she dwells on the road not taken. Back in college, while she was under the spell of Walter's roommate, rocker Richard Katz, Walter worshipped her from a distance. Rather than take the chance on the womanizer Katz, she convinced herself that the good, stolid Walter would be the right choice for a husband (an ideology that usually proves true). Only problem with this is that Walter and Patty continue to see Richard throughout their marriage and the itch between Patty and Richard cries out to be scratched.

Helicopter parenting has a particularly bad outcome in terms of the Berglund's son Joey who rebels against his liberal family's intense love and scrutiny by moving next door into the home of his girlfriend and her right-wing, beer-swilling step dad (a rather stereotypical example to be sure) whose pick-up trucks and rusty construction equipment are the bane of Patty's existence. After Joey moves East to attend college he's torn between the complete sexual satisfaction - and isn't that what it's all about for a 19 year old? - from Connie and the possibility of hooking up with his roommate's sister and the chance to get upwardly mobile. He rather callously calls upon his newly discovered Jewish roots to ingratiate himself with his roommate's dad and lands himself a summer job that will serve him well.

No, this isn't a feel-good novel, nor is it intended to be. It is however, a sadly realistic look at life as we know it. It's peopled with hypocrites, slackers, those without good judgment and those who judge too much, those who'll stomp on someone else's rights so that they can get theirs and those who fight for what they believe is right as the expense of someone else. These same characters forgive, forget and love in their own inimitable ways. They are, probably, most all of us!

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