Franzen Returns with “Freedom”

Count me as one of the people impressed with Jonathan Franzen‘s last novel The Corrections. It was a big, ambitious, swing for the fences, kind of family novel.  The type of novel that was fairly common in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, but fell out of fashion and really, has never much returned into fashion.  And Franzen nailed the genre for our modern times.

A decade ago, when the novel came out, I was still a foundering undergrad who cared about Novels.  Yes, novels with a capital N.  Important novels.  Novels that took the art of storytelling seriously.  It’s hard to believe that in only a decade novels have ceased to matter in the cultural conversation.  I mean, yes, they still matter but not as much as they used to.

And really, if you think hard about it, there have only been a handful of novels that have crossed over and had everybody talking about them in the last decade (help me out, I’ve got: The Corrections, Life of Pi, A Million Little Pieces, The DaVinci Code [which is debatable in and of itself, but there’s no denying the cultural impact of that insufferable religious thriller], and? and?).  The Corrections was a shit-storm.  Remember when Franzen rebuffed Oprah?  Nobody did that back then.

And so, Franzen is back with Freedomanother 500-page, classic family novel.  “Freedom tells a lot of stories, and it spreads them over many decades and several continents,” writes Sam Anderson of New York Magazine.  “It tracks the rise of a rock star, the gentrification of a city neighborhood, the tragic death of a basketball career, the suburbanization of a nameless country pond, and the dirty birth of an international bird sanctuary. The book’s central drama, however, is an old-fashioned love story: the tumultuous lifelong relationship between Walter and Patty Berglund.”

But what did he think of it?

I hadn’t expected to be nearly so engaged by all of this. I picked Freedom up out of a sense of duty, then read it semi-addictively and finished it in just a few days. The difference between reading Franzen firsthand and thinking about him from a distance is the difference between having a dream and trying to tell someone about it three years later. I had forgotten the special pleasures of living inside a Franzen text: the precision with which he charts the excruciating compromises of adulthood; the order he imposes on his characters’ muddled self-consciousness; the strange catharsis of self-sabotage and psychic pileups; the escalating comedy. (There’s a classic scene in which Joey, after accidentally swallowing his wedding ring, is forced to deal with the digestive consequences several days later while sharing a luxury hotel room with another woman.) Some of Freedom’s sentences are so well-written you want to pluck them out, stab them with little corn holders, and eat them: “Like a cold spring at the bottom of a warmer lake, old Swedish-gened depression was seeping up inside him.” And the stakes here feel a little higher than they did in The Corrections. Franzen seems more deeply invested in his characters’ happiness. He’s tilted the compassion:contempt ratio slightly toward the former. I found myself identifying with the book—thinking in new ways about recent events in my friends’ lives, in my own life. It made me think, many times, of one of David Foster Wallace’s favorite edicts about fiction: that the good stuff can make readers feel less lonely.

Can’t wait to dive into this one.  It’s nice to have a Novel and novelist matter againTime calls him “the great American novelist”; Esquire has high praise here as well, and so does Publisher’s Weekly here.

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