on September 20, 2010
Negative reviews get no love on Amazon, but, having been thoroughly taken in by the glowing reviews in the NYT, Time, the Economist, etc., I feel compelled to add a voice of dissent and caution.
I read and enjoyed The Corrections, so was looking forward to seeing what Franzen had been up to for the past 10 years. What he's been up to is, essentially, rewriting The Corrections, but extracting all the humor that leavened the misanthropic bleakness of his vision in the earlier work. Once again we're presented with an outwardly "perfect" nuclear Midwestern family that secretly consists of neurotic hysterics with low self-esteem who ultimately find themselves mired in infidelity and morally dubious business dealings. Once again the focus is on generational conflict, and the "sins of the fathers" revisited in the lives of the children.
Besides the lack of originality, the problem, in essence, is this time out I don't believe a single, solitary word of it. I don't believe in liberal middle-class parents who'd let their teenage son move in with their obnoxious Republican neighbors. I don't believe in a talented college athlete who'd let herself be hoodwinked for years by a ditzy, obsessive fan. I don't believe in a committed environmentalist who'd sign off on strip mining vast tracts of virgin forest in the name of reclaiming those tracts many years afterwards for a single-species preserve. I don't believe in a 19-year-old arms dealer making procurement purchases in Paraguay. I don't believe in a couple who remain married, but utterly incommunicado, for 6 years. I don't believe in a 47-year-old man with no religious convictions who is trying beer for the very first time, and is prone to bursting into tears on the least provocation. And that's just for starters.
Worse, the dialogue this time out is actually painful to read in its patent artificiality. I defy anyone to point to a passage in this book and seriously maintain that this is how parents, children or lovers actually talk to one another, in 2010 or ever. It's as stilted and laden with portentousness as soap opera dialogue. In a plot-driven page-turner in the Grisham mode, this wouldn't be a fatal flaw, but Freedom, with its political and social preoccupations, is a novel that wants to be taken be seriously, and that's simply not possible when the characters speak in an uninterrupted steam of cliche.
The very worst bit, however, is Patty's 200-page "autobiography" which purports to be her life story told in her own voice, but is, in fact, completely indistinguishable from the authorial voice used in the rest of the novel. That this "autobiography" is later part of significant -- and, again, wholly unbelievable -- plot twist compounds this reader's dismay.
A last problem is the characterization in the novel. One-dimensional caricatures abound, from Patty's Hippie-dippy sister Abigail to Walter's starry-eyed, buxom assistant Lalith to Joey's shallow, glamour-puss love-interest Jenna to the shrill Fundamentalist kook who plays a significant role in the final section of the novel. The main characters -- Walter, Patty, Richard, and Joey -- are more developed, but scarcely more believable. Walter's character, for instance, does a 180 -- starting as a preternaturally patient, kind, dutiful son and husband, and becoming an erratic, impatient, unhinged hothead. The problem is not so much the change in personality -- people do change over time -- but the fact that the reader isn't privy to what drives or motivates the change. We see the college-age milquetoast and the middle-aged fanatic, but no steps in between.
It gives me no particular pleasure to trash this novel. Franzen is to be commended for attempting something ambitious in a Tolstoyan mode (Tolstoy is, in fact, referenced directly and indirectly throughout the novel) -- to give an American picture of "how we live now." But, for me, unfortunately, his effort here falls completely flat, and I can't possibly recommend it to anyone.
I will avoid the plot review, because so many others seem compelled to summarize, and the repetition becomes tiresome. I enjoyed this novel, and I think you will too. I gave it four stars because it is not perfect, but it is better than most current fiction. Franzen may be a "serious" writer, but he is also highly readable, with an interesting story that can be enjoyed for itself alone, absent any considerations of literary aspirations.
This is a big, rambling tale of modern Americans in their modern lives, people who reminded me of real people, a plot which kept me turning the pages of this compulsively readable, mostly entertaining novel. The tone is slightly condescending, as the quote above my review would suggest, mostly cynical, and ultimately hopeful by the end of the story, when his battered, bruised and bruising characters emerge from the wreckage of their lives, and bravely carry on.
In many ways this novel is similar to his previous work, The Corrections. I remember enjoying that novel a few years back, although I could not understand why the critics raved about it. Franzen proves yet again that he is a very good writer, building a complicated but workable plot, creating characters who are real, complex and often disappointing, showing us his American self-portrait in 2010. He reaches for a big theme, as the title implies, but he doesn't quite achieve his goal of demontrating the illusory nature of our freedom (or alternatively that all this freedom is killing us). Like Sophocles, Franzen seems to take a dim view of freedom. I probably should not compare Franzen to Sophocles, or other great writers, past or present. He has a genuine voice, a straightforward style, but he does not possess lyrical abilities, nor great thematic breadth. His writing style is similar to Paul Murray's, serving up a cast of mostly unremarkable people who screw up their lives by means of their character defects, giving you a funny and sad slice of everyday life, saying something profound in the process.
Amazon reviewers were much less enamored with The Corrections than the professional reviewers: they gave only three stars on average, with almost as many one star reviews as five star. Franzen's self portraits are closer to the world of the publishing industry than the world of amazon readers. His characters are based in the Midwest, at least in the beginning of the novel, but they are not the American everyman or woman. They are highly educated, well read, socially evolved and spiritually lost in the manner of the wealthy white specimen liberalis americanus. This writing feels too focused upon their world to allow for universal appeal. Nevertheless, Freedom is a very well and carefully written novel. Only time itself will reveal if this is the work of the moment, or a work for all time.
on September 6, 2010
Excellent writing when dealing with the painfully intimate and intricate details of adolescence, marriage, childrearing, infidelity and romantic yearnings. In fact, it approaches the true-to-life fictional style used so successfully by Tom Wolfe in the "Bonfire of the Vanities," and "A Man in Full."
Yet, this saga ominously hits a brick wall when it becomes enmeshed with any number of environomental, social and political issues (incluing mining and overpopulation) that seem to go on for far too long and which consume an excessive amount of time and space. Very "preachy", didactic and repetitive if you will.
As a result, we are confronted with a lengthy novel that is only partially rewarding. It is constucted on cycles of excitement and tedium which make for an erratic reading experience. You really have to invest a good deal of time and effort searching for the literary nuggets that make the effort worthwhile in the end.
on September 17, 2010
I bought this book based on two reviews: New York Magazine's ("it reminds you why everyone got so excited about Franzen in the first place") and The Economist's ("brilliant") combined with the fact that I thought The Corrections was a very good book. The Economist gives out reviews like that about as often as Simon Cowell, so I thought, "even I, who am very picky, am going to like *this* book".
For the first 381 pages, though, the only thing I liked was that I was coming closer to either being finished with this book or to what I thought had to be an incredibly good ending to justify the incredibly good reviews. The characters were immature, lacked perspective and were in many ways unconvincing to me. Walter was obsessed with overpopulation issues but directed most of his anger at the Catholic church for this problem and wanted, it seemed, to discourage people from having any children. We humans, he makes very clear, are a "cancer on the planet". I certainly agree the overpopulation is a problem and only growing in scope, but I had a difficult time believing a 50-year old who had supposedly spent so much time "thinking" about the issue was so unwilling to do what it takes to actually make a difference in solving the problem. Instead of advocating policies that might actually work, such as trying to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies in the world, he starts a non-profit to try to encourage 19-year-olds (who will certainly *never* change their minds!) to never have children. Perhaps a 30-year old would be convincing in this role, but not a 50-year old. As a result, it seems Franzen is not trying to make a policy argument but rather using the issue to represent Walter's anger with people in general. Unfortunately, this did not work for me, and this is just one of many examples of unconvincing behavior by characters combined with the unsuccessful use of metaphors in this book.
Another disappointing feature of the first 381 pages was the onslaught of information about characters, policy issues and family histories, much of which was not directly or even indirectly relevant to the story. Several minor characters and a few subplots could have been eliminated without detracting from the book.
Sexual tension -- will they or won't they?? -- also played a significant role in the first part of the book, but it often felt like a ploy to keep you reading when a good editing job could have achieved the same effect, saved us all a lot of time, and the world some trees. Even Walter would have approved of the saving of the trees!
Finally, beginning with the section entitled "Bad News", the news for the reader actually becomes good. Characters become people to whom we can connect rather than just people about whom we know many facts. The theme of "Freedom" stops being so heavy-handed. The word "somewhat" is used less frequently. The phrase "significant look" finally disappears. Rewards for all the time and energy spent reading begin to appear, and even better ones appear to be coming soon!
I consider myself a patient reader, but as emotionally affected as I was by the ending of this book, I gave it three stars because I do not believe the time spent getting there was worth it. I considered giving up around page 250, and at that point would have given it two stars. If you haven't read The Corrections, I suggest that book instead, but many people (not including me) found the characters to be unlikeable. If you are impatient, or prefer your books to reward you all along the way, as I believe they ought to, skip this one.
on December 11, 2010
This is clearly a love-it-or-hate-it novel, if the reviews on Amazon are any indication. Five-star reviews and one-star reviews dominate, in almost equal numbers.
I have never read Franzen before, and in fact was put off by all the hype surrounding his earlier work. I read a particularly devastating review of this book in the Atlantic Monthly ("The Case Against Jonathan Franzen"), so even before picking this up I had a negative impression. I got the book from the library out of curiosity, expecting that I would browse through a few pages, be bored out of my wits, and return the book forthwith.
However, I was hooked from the very first page and found it almost impossible to put down. Franzen's writing satisfies on many levels, but as a pure storyteller who can make a character come to throbbing, pulsating, three-dimensional life in a few sentences, he knows no peer. He reminds me a little of T. C. Boyle, without the obscure vocabulary.
If there is a weakness here, it's that there is not a dramatic plot as such. It's more a slice-of-life study of a family and a straightforward love triangle, but it's not easy to say exactly what the book is "about." Like many great works of art, what it's about will ultimately be in the perception of the reader.
Most of the negative reviews found the characters to be unlikeable, which surprises me; they all have serious problems, but I felt sympathy for almost all of them. As to whether they are believable, suffice it to say that Franzen's storytelling spell is so complete that I suspended any disbelief and surrendered to the story. And that's what good fiction requires: suspension of disbelief.
Since reaction to this novel is so widely divided, it's difficult to recommend it in the conventional sense: i.e., "Don't believe the negative reviews!, etc." This is not a book for everyone, apparently. So, all I can do is tell you how much I enjoyed it. It's certainly worth at least checking out from the library.
on September 19, 2010
I found things to enjoy in this book, but perhaps not as many as some of the adoring reviewers have found. I might be in the sweet spot of Franzen's target audience--an NPR-listening, Big 10-educated, Obama-supporting fellow with a few midwestern and generational overlaps with the novel's hero, Walter. But by the end, I wanted Garrison Keillor's radio troupe, who were no doubt St. Paul neighbors of Walter and his wife Patty, to drop by and give them some words of wisdom from the Ketchup Advisory Board. And maybe some trimming by Keillor's Professional Organization of English Majors would help. Yes, Walter and company had their moments, but all in all, they, and their games of musical beds, bored me.
Not enough however to keep me from plowing through the book in three long sittings. The theme of freedom was woven nicely throughout in a way that resonates with today's reality. Franzen has an attention for detail that often captured me. I especially liked his portrait of late 70's/early 80's college life, as well as some of the foibles of upper middle class urban living. By and large, he gives an accurate portrayal of my generation and our times. And that bothered me--mainly because on reflection I prefer the literature and mores of days gone relative to those of today.
Adoring reviewers, no doubt inspired by Franzen's "War and Peace" references scattered throughout "Freedom," raised my hopes that we may have a new Tolstoy on our hands. Alas, no. A few years ago, I also rushed through "War and Peace" and was dazzled. It was an utter joy to read through its emotional highs and lows. I was more quietly dazzled after reading "David Copperfield" this past summer. Franzen's characters always seem to have some sort of pharmaceutical assistance to temper their extremes, and so does the novel.
So unless a friend who suggested I come up for air and read some twenty-first century fiction can come up with some better suggestions, I may well find myself regressing back to the nineteenth century for my reading pleasure, with an occasional interruption by Phillip Roth.
on November 21, 2010
So I'm half way through "Freedom" and figured I'd better check out the reviews to find out if maybe I'm reading the wrong book, not that one that Oprah blessed and even The Economist likes, because the book I'm reading stinks.
A plot as strained as just-cooked spaghetti. An unending "autobiography" insert that reads like a Creative Writing 101 character sketch. The now-mandatory musing about 9/11 without it having the slightest relevance to the story at hand. Rants about sex and pop music and population growth and liberals and businessmen and politicians and parenting and giving a damn about anything -- every whine you can conjure up about post-reality America is in this thing, looping ad nauseum, never getting anywhere near a point.
The one unforgivable flaw in a novel is boring, unbelievable characters, and wow, are these folks a set. There's not one person in "Freedom" you wouldn't sprint from if they sat down next to you and started a conversation. Who are these people modeled after, Franzen? How can I be sure to avoid them?
I'm doing something I rarely do: freeing myself from the last 200 pages of "Freedom".
on August 17, 2011
I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about this book. This is the first book I've ever read by Franzen and although, for the most part, I enjoyed his prose, I absolutely HATED his characters. They were all miserable people doing miserable things to one another. Occasionally I would find myself becoming sympathetic towards a character only to then have them do something so awful that I would find myself loathing them again. Call me old fashioned, but I have a hard time enjoying a book when I can't care about or root for at least one character. I will admit that Franzen turns it around a bit in the end. The last 80 pages or so I was finally compelled to FEEL for some of the characters and that was my favorite part of the book! If some of those good feelings could have been sprinkled throughout the other 500 pages of this tome I think I would have enjoyed it more. But overall this was a trying read for me. Some friends of mine have read this and absolutely loved it and they loved it for the exact same reason that I didn't. Maybe I'm just too positive and sunny of a person to allow myself to wallow in the miserableness for 500+ pages. Not that I'm trying to call my friends negative...oh geez, all this is just coming out wrong now...
Here's the gist:
- I enjoyed Franzen's evocative and painterly writing.
- I enjoyed the pop culture references which helped me feel like this story was truly of today's world, that these characters could actually be real.
- I didn't quite understand the passages that were supposed to be written as autobiography by the Patty character. Patty's autobiographical voice didn't seem any different from Franzen's voice, so that device didn't work for me.
- I wish the characters had been a bit more sympathetic throughout the story. It was hard for me sometimes to push on through because they were all so miserable that I didn't even care what happened to them.
- I'm not sure I would ever read anything else by Mr. Franzen.
on September 18, 2010
Looking over the forceful exchange of ideas here, I wonder if the measure of Jonathan Franzen's achievement is the energy he injects into his readers. While giving the book five stars, I acknowledge many points made by the negative reviews: the characters are not exactly "lovable," and the book contains much political preaching. I have something to say about politics in the book, but first I want to list what I liked best.
Jonathan Franzen describes life situations with appalling accuracy. Examples in this book: accepting friendship from someone damaged, because you need friendship so badly. Falling in love with a cruel, empty person because they are cruel and empty, because winning them will set you apart, because they have more power than you do. Trying as hard as you can to escape from people like your parents, only to marry someone even worse. Divorcing your spouse and facing a lifetime of hurt, regret, and uncertainty regarding your decision.
Naturally, the author is at his best when describing situations he's familiar with. The more like Franzen you are - in age, gender, social circle - the more interesting his observations are likely to appear to you.
About politics: I'm just an average, distant reader, so I'll go out on a limb here. I do not think Franzen is interested in politics for their own sake. He wants to show us what strong ideas do to the lives of people who are passionate about them. Walter's obsessions--with endangered species and population control--shape him as a person and, in great measure, ruin his life. Similarly, the characters' political prejudices, liberal and conservative, prevent them from making friends or getting what they want. They are blinded by these ideas. They are so busy filing their perceptions politically, they can't see the world as it is.
I'd like to read other readers' thoughts on this subject. Thank you for reading my review.
on December 1, 2010
I struggled to find a reason to like this book as I slowly wended my way through the first 503 pages. The character flaws I would have liked most about the people in this story were left unexplored and I had a very hard time buying into the events that set the course for each character's twisted life path.
The title is "Freedom" and it should have been "Mired" as the freedoms these characters fail to embrace and celebrate were lost in the painfully uninteresting storyline.
You know what? I'm bored writing this review because I was bored reading the first 503 pages of this book. Only at the very end did I start to feel something, but by then Franzen had cashed in every chit I was willing to spare him.
Overall: stilted prose. thin characters. unrealistic events. boring omniscience.