There are people who love Jonathan Franzen and there are people who hate Jonathan Franzen. I have to reveal to you, Dear Reader, that I am…one of the former. I love Franzen and his writing and his skill with narration and viewpoint and his ability to create completely real, not always likeable but always relatable characters. Whether popular or not to say it, I think this man’s got talent. His words engulf me and I feel as if I’m swirling around in a grey cloud, unable to think of nothing but the story, read nothing but the story, breathe nothing but the story. Is it wrong that I kind of want to make love to his prose? Are you judging me right now??? (You should probably be judging me right now.)
Freedom (2010) is Franzen’s first novel since The Corrections. Much like The Corrections, Freedom is told from multiple points of view, over multiple generations, with smaller points of conflict threaded throughout the larger narrative. In other words, it’s exactly the sort of book I would – and do – love. At the center of the novel are Patty and Walter Berglund, a “nice midwestern couple” who are grappling with the disintegration of their relationship. While much more than this happens – it would take another 500 words to do a plot synopsis – this is really what the story is about: the relationships we have with others and with ourselves and what we do with the freedoms in our lives.
Franzen’s characters are, at times, despicable and unlikable and yet so real, so truthfully flawed that they are equally sympathetic. We’ve all known people like them. We, perhaps, have been a person like them. Whether recognizing that makes you love them or hate them is up to you, but I find this celebration of the imperfect enthralling. Patty and Walter, and their friend Richard and their son Joey, the other characters from whose viewpoints the story is told, may not make the best decisions possible, but they strive to, and in the absence of knowing their decisions are the right ones, they at least want to believe that they are trying to do the right thing. That sounds horrible, actually, but who hasn’t watched someone justify a poor decision with faulty logic that only truly benefits themselves? I venture to say we’ve all done it.
I love Franzen’s decision to intrude on the narrative in Patty’s “autobiographical” portion of the story. I love that he examines the idea of “freedom,” both in the nationalistic sense that we were pummeled with post-9/11, but also in the smaller liberties we take for granted every day. I love that he so deftly captures each character’s voice, so that when we read their sections we are in their heads and see the events unfold through their eyes. His use of limited third person narration is simply masterful. Although he lost me a bit with the parts about the cerulean warbler and the politics of overpopulation, I love his writing so much that I almost don’t care.
See, this is the kind of reader I am. You write poorly, even about something I find interesting, and I’ll trash it mercilessly. You write about anything beautifully and I’m going to love it. And this? This I loved.