Things I liked about Freedom:
Excellent dialogue. Often, the big difference between a good book and a great book is the utility and credibility of the dialogue. In a serviceable book, dialogue often reads as mere plot-mover. Franzen’s dialogue does not. For example, this fits-and-starts conversation between Patty Berglund and her good-doer lawyer father Ray after Ray finds out Patty has been raped by the son of the Berglunds’ ‘political friends’ the Posts:
‘Yes, but better to, uh. Life’s not always fair, Pattycakes. Mr. Post said he thought Ethan might be willing to apologize for not being more gentlemanly, but. Well. Would you like that?’
‘I didn’t think so.’
‘Coach Nagel says I should go to the police.’
‘Coach Nagel should stick to her dribbling,’ her dad said.
‘Softball,’ Patty said. ‘It’s softball season now.’
I would say that, aside from being really quite moving, this snippet contains a fair whack of character (habits, interests, concerns – spoken and unspoken), elucidates the relationship between the speakers and absent characters, tells us a bit about the social milieu, and has a great rhythm to it – as well as being an efficient bit of plot assistance.
Casual mastery of activity-specific vocabulary. A lot of my favourite writers do this well, but Franzen does it at a level that straddles the divide between immense comfort/familiarity, and ostentatiousness. Hence, Patty’s skill in basketball grows: ‘Augmenting her reliable perimeter shooting was a growing taste for driving to the basket.’ Nice.
Getting some kind of insight into what it must be like to hang out with Jonathan Franzen. So a lot of great fiction writers have strong powers of imagination, but a lot of great writers also have acute observation and recording skills. Plenty of the scenes and characters in this book are shored up with the kind of detail that can only come from obsessive observation. However. Observing people in a public place is one thing – it’s quite easy to do without bothering anyone, but Freedom deals closely with a family and domestic settings. Where does he get that detail from?
It’s hard not to start imagining what it must be like to be friends with him. Imagine being like ‘Oh, hey Jonathan, come bake some cookies at my house with me and my kids,’ and Franzen is thinking ‘What a great opportunity to observe domestic minutiae’. When he comes over and you are happily mixing dough, You are thinking ‘God I love baking with maple syrup’, and Franzen is surreptitiously taking notes: ‘X is labouring to mold cookie dough into geometrically perfect spheres, taking such pains that the butter liquefies and makes the dough glisten darkly. She makes eleven balls for every one of the child’s. When the cookies come out of the oven X never fails to ask the child’s permission to eat the one “truly outstanding” cookie.’
That is, assuming you know Jonathan Franzen, which I am assuming you don’t. Anyway, just some advice, put yourself on guard in case of friendship with Franzen.
Reading about middle class people and being allowed to laugh at them because they are highly caricatured, even though analogues for most of the behaviour in this book would probably be easily found among my acquaintance. I think that one speaks for itself. The combination of detail and absurdity made me think irresistibly of actor/screenwriter Chris Lilley, whose faux documentaries hold up funhouse mirrors to many faces of Australian society. Hue and outcry! Well, wipe down your vanity.
Deep, wide, sprawling and comprehensive portrait of complex people. I honestly don’t remember the last time I read a large novel featuring characters of such detail and depth. Obviously, I need to read more widely and in more volume, but with Freedom I went spelunking joyfully into the histories and externals and laterals of this family. A lot of people have said that they found these characters unsavoury or unsympathetic, which I find difficult to believe as a person impatient with my own seemingly endless fallibility.
A reminder me that I can love novels. A consequence not to be underestimated.
Things I didn’t like about Freedom:
SPOILER FOLLOWS, SERIOUSLY, THIS IS A WARNING THAT BELOW I DISCUSS THE END OF THE NOVEL THOUGH IN NO GREAT DETAIL
Structural maliciousness. The best way I can think to put this particular criticism is taken from the book itself. A description of Joey Berglund’s perception of the ‘higher-order bad luck’ that seems to be haunting him goes as follows: ‘The culprit was something deeper, something not political, something structurally malicious, like the bump in a sidewalk that trips you and lands you on your face when you’re out innocently walking.’
I like the term ‘structurally malicious’, actually, its corporate poetry echoing the young Republican’s disregard for personal responsibility. But it is an apt descriptor for the much criticised death that occurs about two-thirds through the book, and what follows. I’ve heard other people describe their reaction to this as ‘Franzen really hates his characters’, but my response was more to decide that Franzen privileges structure and neatness above all else. The death was so out of left field that you could practically hear the machinery grinding against the strain of being taken in such an unnatural direction. And how nuclear and paradigmatic an ending! A friend of mine describes the book’s denouement as ‘cursory’ – I thought of it as the gift-wrapper’s final tamping down of the ribbon bow: here you go, a novel.
But the most confounding part is that to some extent I liked the ending and thought it suited, with its inevitable sadder-wiser ending and cheeringly redemptive flourishes, and it challenged what I thought I wanted from a novel. I like clear moral paths and consequences in young adult books (there’s a proclivity I don’t much want to explore without the aid of a mental health professional), but in literary fiction I like something a bit fuzzier (or something), don’t I? Why did I respond with such relief to such a surpriseless conclusion? I have no good answer yet, partly stemming from the fact that I am not sure how else I would have wanted the book to end.