I really liked the book. Got to see Franzen at Lisner Auditorium, and it was a pleasure. Even though he did his "withholding" thing with the audience - Franzen really didn't want to give anything away. When asked directly, "What is this story about?", he wouldn't answer the question. But it didn't annoy me - his talk was free. An author can play any game he pleases when I'm not paying to hear him speak. They only get my wrath when they keep that game up after I've paid to hear them.
He said his favorite character was a Republican. From that, we were supposed to infer Joey. Well sure, a young Republican with a sex slave for a wife who makes a fortune off the Gulf War while still in college. What guy wouldn't love a character like that?
But hey, this is anything but a feminist age. Can you blame Franzen for tapping the backlash with some great writing and making money off it?
Methinks he enjoyed toying with the audience a wee bit too much - they schlepped in 90 degree heat to hear him read. In his defense, he was exhausted. He was on the last day of a three week book tour, he said. And at least the questions weren't as bad as the ones he encountered the night before in Philadelphia.
There was a lot more of this sly humor. Call it "cynical" only if you're in a bad mood. When accused, Frazen pointed out that "cynical" is something that folks love to call OTHER PEOPLE. If you're in a good mood, and I was, that's a witty guy.
Writers are funny people. When you think about what it cost Jonathan Franzen to write this book, over nine years, he'd have to be a little obsessed. I watched a bunch of interviews with him on You Tube, and I found the process excruciating but engrossing. He's just not in the same league with people who grind out mysteries or chick lit; he's trying to hold up a mirror to society, and ultimately, he becomes that mirror. Not many people have the guts.
A therapist friend of mine thinks Joey is the character who represents Franzen; I'm not so sure, but anyone who thinks this is some sort of liberal affirmation hasn't read Freedom closely. What I got from it is that no matter what our persuasions, we're all human with character flaws and weaknesses. Some people (not me) would call it original sin, but even if you don't, what I found a little depressing about the book was the predictability with which the characters fell victim to the worst impulses.
If there's a defining framework to this I think the key is David Hume's thoughts on cause and effect, which is alluded to on p.218 in the metaphor that "we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli." Hume held that there's no certainty of cause and effect when one billiard ball strikes another. Strange as that may seem, to this day it's a profoundly troubling proposition and Freedom illustrates why. I think this understanding goes a long way in explaining much of the discomfort with the book.
In a way, Franzen is having an Infinite Jest moment (Notice how the title, and section titles angle across the page similar to Infinite Jest).
The randomness of individuals pinging off one another like subatomic particles gone mad also allows Franzen to tack on the incongruous ending where Walter and Patty drive off into a blissful future over the horizon waving to bystanders as if they were in some sort of parade. Franzen may have omitted it, but I'll bet the bumper sticker read: I found my self at Nameless Lake.
FYI: I started this discussion based on a huge flame war that's taking place in a reviewer's comments. There was some actual discussion, and I suggested we move it to a discussion thread. Hence, short, tongue in cheek starter.
Unfortunately, there appear to be TWO forums for this book, one for the Oprah version, and one for the non. I got confused and started a discussion there as well, so now there are two general discussion threads.
I'm not familiar with Hume's theory that there's no cause and effect with billiard balls? This seems incorrect, so I'm not sure why it would be troubling? However, I believe that after I think maybe eight shots, you have to account for the gravitational pull of anyone who may be standing new the table, so it does get random very fast.
Here's the relevant section from Hume's essay on cause and effect:
>...we could at first have inferred that one billiard ball would communicate motion to another upon impulse, and that we needed not to have waited for the event, in order to pronounce with certainty concerning it. Such is the influence of custom, that, where it is strongest, it not only covers our natural ignorance but even conceals itself, and seems not to take place, merely because it is found in the highest degree.
>But to convince us that all the laws of nature, and all the operations of bodies without exception, are known only by experience, the following reflections may, perhaps, suffice. Were any object presented to us, and were we required to pronounce concerning the effect, which will result from it, without consulting past observation, after what manner, I beseech you, must the mind proceed in this operation? It must invent or imagine some event, which it ascribes to the object as its effect, and it is plain that this invention must be entirely arbitrary. The mind can never possibly find the effect in the supposed cause, by the most accurate scrutiny and examination. For the effect is totally different from the cause, and consequently can never be discovered in it. Motion in the second billiard ball is a quite distinct event from the motion in the first. nor is there anything in the one to suggest the smallest hint of the other.
This is what's happening in Freedom. The characters are exerting influence on the other bodies, with the anticipation and expectation that what one character's cause - say Walter's goodness - will carry over into other characters - give virtuous direction to Patty's random spurts in unpredictable directions. Or, if you like, Walter's cause in trying to achieve a certain effect in his son's Joey's life.
I think generally we expect good causes like Walter's attempts to make an honest woman out of Patty to have good effects. It's largely why parents in Freedom and in life develop the expectations they do.
It just seems frequently not to work out that way. Part of the problem - and I think this is what Freedom may be driving at - is we need a better understanding of how cause and effect work and doesn't work. And, that understanding may only come with the benefit of "experience" in witnessing past events so that we gain insight into what effect might result from the cause of one body influencing another, whether it's billiard balls, men making impossible demands on women, or parents trying to shape the lives of their children.
1) A plot spoiler of epic proportions. (Franzen throws his arms in the air in astonishment, although with smile, as the audience groans and laughs.)
2) Smug-sounding woman wants to rehash the 2001 Oprah thing. (Crowd groans again.)
Jonathan mentions that this q & a is a little more tense than usual.
3) A guy says he's never read any of his books except for 50 pages of Freedom, but David Brooks says the book was a failure. Would Franzen please address David Brooks's criticism. (More audience unrest.)
4) Intelligent question, so I won't bother with that. (It was over my head, anyway!)
5) Guy apologizes to Franzen for the previous questions and then says something like, "You take American society and figuratively slap it against the floor like a dead mouse." Franzen at this point is rubbing his scalp with both hands.
What did he have to say about the questions? My husband and I thought he was a wonderful reader. (I remember thinking that this was why he was so funny on the Simpsons. Did you ever see that episode?). I think he is a funny and engaging speaker, but my guess is that he is also burned out from all the hype that has surrounded him since 2001.
I'm trying to remember what he said about you Liberty Bell folks, and drawing a blank (sorry). I do remember he was asked about ZPG, and said that if you are devoted to a single species (or a few of them), and you follow the logic to its conclusion, you end up acknowledging that you have to get rid of humans. Then he said at least twice that he was a Democrat. Very sincere, very mocking. Yours Truly said he holds up the mirror for Americans, and he becomes the mirror. I liked this comment. It reminded me how sympathetic Tolstoy was toward his most famous character, Anna Karenina. Yet he saw her as a warning of things to come, and you know the author was relieved when he finished her off under a train. Tolstoy really "became the mirror", and I think Franzen is doing it now.
Yes, M, and that's where, with all due apology, I think he gets it wrong. I think that you're right that the authorial voice in his writing views itself as a mirror reflecting something broader and deeper than what Freedom is actually reflecting. The fault is with the incomplete thought in his work - in the sense that a story consists of action, character and thought (what is possible given the action and characters).
Using his metaphor of the iPod nation, it seems to me that the shortcoming in his thinking is reflecting American society solely as a dissociated colony of individuals plugged into electronic devices making individual decisions that ping off other individuals, with who-knows-what results as each object renders its own understanding of the energy that just pinged it. The problem is that the metaphor and the thinking behind it are too incomplete. What's missing from this mirror is an accurate reflection of the process between individual and community.
If you're going to assume the role of the American mirror (as Franzen seems to intend), the picture reflected has to deal effectively with the community, which is the cornerstone of America. The country began with two communities - one already formed fleeing persecution by other communities, and the original community to the south formed to meet daily living requirements of food on the table and roof over the head. And, as the historian Daniel Boorstin, and a raft of American authors (Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, both Roths, Updike, and Twain to name a few) have established, you can't assume the role of American mirror without accurately reflecting the community.
The problem with the community in Freedom is the lack of ambiguity and complexity that would make Franzen's book a probable improbability. In Richard's iPod diatribe, we get an insightful metaphor of the dynamic of the individual, but there's little communal context. An article in the Oct. 4 New Yorker ("The Truth About the Twitter Revolution") touches upon a key point in understanding the iPod metaphor. Malcolm Gladwell points out that activism results not from electronically-based social networks, but from groups that meet face to face. From the civil rights campaigns in the American south to the more recent Iranian uprisings, Gladwell points out that the energy, and direction of the energy, came from within communities.
But Franzen has tied his metaphor too closely to the randomness of David Hume's musings on cause and effect. It's as if he came across this neat idea and ran home dead set and determined to weave it into his story. As a result, the exlusion of the community leaves a hole in the book's thought. For instance, if randomness is the governing law of the universe, there can't be a community, nor can we assume how any individual will affect others. If that's the case, then the first ending, with Walter getting the call notifying him of Lalith's death fits. Individuals pinging off one another results in death by car crash with uncertain cause.
But for whatever reason (a joke?) Franzen tacked on the second ending, where Walter and Patty reconcile and drive off into the sunset waving to the community, which in a very rushed and superficial way has been portrayed as embracing the two. Another explanation of the second ending is that it's a vehical to wrap up Patty's old-school, northeast, capitalist family history. This family - the basic unit of community - offers an energy that can best be described as tending to entropy, or decline. Outside of Patty, there's no character that escapes the crushing deterioration.
In the end, Freedom offers a clever reflection that is incomplete. He's not alone in this regard. Cormac McCarthy's early works (through Blood Meridian) suffers from the same deficiency in perspective. In McCarthy's early works, the mirror reflects a world darker even than the blackest Gnostic. In Blood Meridian, the only light is the alien light that dances in the desert night. But, McCarthy's works speak to one another. For instance, The Road can be read as commentary of the shortcomings in the thought of the earlier works. In No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Bell is a shepherd of the community that ends in a dream of light.
So, where to from here for Franzen? Freedom informs The Corrections, without too much doubt. Patty can be seen as an element drawn from the thinking in The Corrections that is woven throughout Freedom. It seems to me Franzen may be saying: "Oh wait. Can I rewrite that? I forgot something very important." If so, and if he can further develop the thought invested in his books, then he may parallel (not necessarily join) story tellers such as McCarthy, Faulkner, Philip Roth, John Updike, and others retold stories throughout their career.
M's allusion to the mirror is a particularly apt one. Aristotle in his Poetics said the artist looks out into the world, selects elements from it, and portrays them in a rearrangement that results in a meaningful understanding of the original sight. In my long-winded way, I think Franzen needs to work on the process some going forward. Freedom in particular could have benefitted from some further thinking.
I'm about to give up on it after only about 50 pages. The characters are so mean spirited and negative. Why would I want to know more about the Berglunds from the point of view of people like the Paulsens. Then Patty becomes hard to love with her rants about Carol and Blake. Really narrow-minded, gossipy, I'll-willed neighbors bashing each other. Why is this a good read? Sorry....I don't like it or the arrogance of Franzens supposed genius in crafting these unlikeable characters.
What I don't get is why people agonize over a book they don't enjoy reading?
I stopped shortly after college with Ulysses. Put it down 1/3 of the way short of finishing and haven't given it two thoughts sense. Since then I've learned to spot what to me will be a stinker. It isn't hard.
Franzen - yesterday or the day before - was at a luncheon to launch Freedom in the UK (now that I write that I wonder if we should have sent Franzen to Iraq instead of the army) when he got jumped, and the jumper made off with his glasses. A ransom note simultaneously appeared at the gathering demanding $100,000 for the return of his glasses. Perpetrators were apprehended in the park, and the glasses returned to the author of Freedom. Sorta sounds like the beginning of a Sherlock Holmes story.
Don't leave out the helicopter chase, Zook. Evidently one of the perps jumped into Hyde Park's Serpentine and that lead to a helicopter search. The optical kidnapper was apprehended and later that evening (in Franzen's words) "a nice policeman" walked into the restaurant where he was eating dinner and returned the glasses. This sounds as outrageous as any situation Chip from The Corrections ever got himself into.