It’s taken me two years since the release of this novel to finally get around to reading it. In fact, it’s taken me up until April 2012 to get around reading Jonathan Franzen at all. The reason for such a delay in reading a novelist who has been both lauded and despised with equal measure was simply the fact that there were a billion other books and authors I wanted to read first, not out of some reactionary rejection over the fact that Franzen is a “popular” author or the fact that this novel in particular was designated an official “Oprah Book.” Nevertheless, I’ve heard a hell of a lot of people talk of Franzen over the years and have read quite a few articles about his writing and about the author himself, none of which had any sense of balance. Either he was loved and praised as the “savior of American fiction” or hated and despised.
Two perfect examples can be found in these two articles. The first is by Jonathan Jones from the U.K.’s Guardian, which praises Franzen as a “genius” and calls this novel “The novel of the century” and the second is from The Atlantic’s literary critic B.R. Myers, who, with this article around the time of the novel’s release, was noted for “taking down” Franzen, exposing him for the fraud that Myers - and many others - saw him to be. Just Google Franzen and you will not see a shortage of opinions about him. So naturally, my curiosity was piqued and I knew at some point I would have to read him and see what the fuss was all about.
I chose “Freedom” because it was his most recent novel and this was the novel that either established him as “The Great American Novelist” as Time Magazine’s cover story had referred to him or the writer of “juvenile prose” who had written a “monument to nothing” as B.R. Myers concluded. I was a little apprehensive because I didn’t really know what to expect. Was this really going to be a waste of time, was it going to be “hipster bullshit”, or was this going to be something worthwhile? I came to this novel trying to put aside all the biases from either the pro or anti-Franzen camp and read it with an open mind.
Part of the reason why I think Franzen ignites such vitriol in some is because of all the attention he had been getting over the years. Couple that with some of the dumb things he had said in his interviews, the “infamous” snub of Oprah, among other things (one thing I personally always disagreed with was his notion that he “doubted that anyone with an internet connection in their workspace is writing good fiction.” That’s a personal matter and patently untrue). He also has “the look” that some people associate with an “Author”: the studious, serious looking man of letters and sometimes I think there are those out there - whether they are writers or just lovers of literature - who are actively looking for someone to believe in, someone to breathe life back into what they see as the dearth of quality in American contemporary fiction. This same “look” also seems to rub people the wrong way (according to a lot of blog comments), coming off as “smug” and “pompous.” They, like a lot of people often do, equate the person with the work and find a hard time separating the two. I don’t know Franzen, though I have seen him on many a talk show on C-Span over the years. He didn’t come off as all that pompous to me, but then again, I didn’t really care one way or the other, although I was interested in what he had to say about the current state of American fiction.
Another reason, I suspect, is his extreme popularity. It has been my experience that a lot of writers are by nature fiercely competitive. Not all writers, of course, but many, something I never quite understood. Franzen is what they want to be: acknowledged, praised, recognized, and most importantly, famous. I have found that the louder the critic - particularly among younger writers - the more famous they desire to be. What seems to drive their anger is that they feel that they deserve that recognition and that respect and that fame and resent the fact that someone they see as inferior to them is getting all that attention while they toil away in obscurity. It’s a natural feeling, one that I do understand, believe me but I can’t help get the feeling that those who simply hate Franzen desire to be in the position that he is in at the moment. From my browsing around the internet and reading comments and message boards, etc, many a writer would kill to be as well known as Franzen currently is. But all this has absolutely nothing to do with the work. The bottom line is: Did Franzen write a good book?
So, I finally decided to dip my toe into the Franzen waters and see what all the fuss is about and I have to say, with all honesty, I was quite surprised. I was half-expecting a pompous, “clever,” highly “Literary” novel (despite my efforts to come to it with no biases), filled with self-conscious “literary” experiments, catering to those who love their books highbrow and difficult. “Freedom” is certainly not this. What you have here is a pretty straightforward story and Franzen’s style is quite ordinary if you ask me. Very well written but ordinary. By the time I got 100 pages in, I kept asking myself what the hell the fuss was all about. Franzen is neither the “Great American Novelist” nor is he deserving of all the hatred being thrown at him. It is actually a very good book with a very good story being told, one that kept me engaged to the very end. Was it a work of “genius”? Absolutely not, nor was it terrible or pretentious. Just a straightforward tale, one in which people of my generation could easily relate to (although Franzen and his characters are quite a few years older than I am.) Nor is it a “perfect” novel by any stretch. There were many times where I felt it could have been a much shorter book and I found myself skimming over large sections of the story, sections I thought the book could have easily have done without. It could have been “tighter”, but that’s just me and how I prefer a novel to read. One gets the feeling that Franzen was so in love with these characters he had a hard time letting them go and wrote on and on and on until he could finally bring it to a conclusion. Personally, I felt that if the book had ended on page 535, it would have been much more powerful an ending, leaving the reader to wonder what happened next. Instead, he seemed to choose the route that would tie everything up, not necessarily neatly, but enough to satisfy those who prefer an ending that reads “The End.” Overall he has a very good story here and one does become so engaged with the characters he created you truly want to follow them and see what happens.
Is he “The Great American Novelist?” Not by a long shot, but one could definitely argue that he is a very good novelist based on this one book. (If you ask me Cormac McCarthy is more deserving of that title in contemporary fiction). I kept asking myself why were the passions so high on either side of the Franzen debate? Why has he become either the “savior” or the “whipping boy” to a lot of people?
I think a lot of it comes from the fact that there are a lot of people out there who are passionate about literature and writing in general who are desperately looking for someone to believe in, someone to carry the torch so to speak. Back in the day when novelists were of more importance to our culture, you had people like Hemingway, Mailer, Faulkner, etc, that people could “look to.” The novel, as an art form, has unfortunately become less and less important in our culture and novelists in particular have become nothing more than providers of entertainment for the overwhelming majority of the population. It’s really only die-hard readers and writers and lovers of literature who find the novelist to be more important to the culture than he/she currently is for most people. I’m one of those who feel they are and should be more important to the culture at large but the fact of the matter is they no longer are. Television, film, music, popular culture in general has usurped the “importance” of the novelist in our culture. Add to this the fact that since the 1980s (in my estimation, anyway) art forms have become more compartmentalized and more abundant. There are a billion different categories and subcategories for everything that one can be renowned in their genre (so to speak) and be ignored by the overwhelming majority of people yet still make a name for himself. It isn’t so one-dimensional anymore. What people consider “Literature” now can be broken into a million different factions. So those who are very into Serious Literature are seeking someone to carry the torch in the same manner that the past masters have. Who exactly are the new Hemingways, Mailers and Faulkners? Do they even exist? Will they even exist anymore? So people will grab anyone that comes along that shows promise and foist their expectations upon them, only to be disappointed by them when they discover that perhaps that’s not what their intentions are to begin with. How many novelists have been looked to as the Literary Messiah over the past two decades and how many have actually lived up to that? Perhaps the novelist’s position in our culture has been permanently diminished, or perhaps that “messiah” is yet to emerge. Franzen certainly isn’t it, although he did write a good, entertaining novel here.
I don’t know if Franzen himself has embraced the role those want to give to him or not. Perhaps he has, and this is why there’s such a backlash against him. But if he didn’t, and all he is attempting to do is write good books with a good story to tell, then it is the fault of others who pinned their high hopes on someone who simply wasn’t and isn’t looking to carry that torch; and that’s what usually happens whenever anyone seeks a messiah to “save” them.
“Freedom” was a very enjoyable book. Not a work of genius and not a load of shit either. Perhaps it should be approached devoid of all the hype and vitriol and be judged for what it is rather than what it was supposed to be. That may be the problem here, then again, people have a right to their own opinions and judgment - and this is my opinion, my judgment, for what it’s worth.
Rating: * * * 1/2