I sort of followed all of the hullabaloo about Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, out of the corner of my eye, but as I had not read anything else by him (I know, I know), I didn’t really feel compelled to get all worked up. It did strike me that, as almost no one had actually read the book yet, it might be wise for everyone to just calm down and wait for it to get published. Because if it actually was the great American novel? Then shut up already. And if it wasn’t the great American novel? Well then, we could, you know, CITE THE TEXT like all our English teachers used to beg us, and stop speculating.
But I will admit, being a generally contrary sort these days, and specifically an increasingly bad feminist, I was inclined to like Freedom. I was really gunning for old Jonathan. I was, I am a little ashamed to admit, looking forward to writing a smug review in which I could say, “Uh, ladies? Actually, it IS a really great novel.” As it turns out, though, I must eat crow. Because, as it turns out, I kind of hated Freedom. Okay, maybe hated is too strong a word. But I really didn’t like it.
Now I know a lot of folks did like Freedom. A lot of folks, in fact, loved it. I’ve been reading the reviews, so I know. I’ve been reading the reviews, and, frankly, scratching my head. Because I’m just not seeing it, not at all. And I will admit, though it seems sort of silly — little old me, you know — to suggest that all those big important reviewers are WRONG — but still, I have noticed that those big important reviewers rarely actually CITE THE TEXT, and when they do, their evidence is just unconvincing. Now I used to be an English teacher, and my mother was an English teacher, and my wife is still an English teacher, and I’m pretty sure that all those reviews would get, at best, a C+ in any of our English classes. Because no English teacher worth her salt would let a student get away with describing Franzen’s sentences as “so well-written you want to pluck them out, stab them with little corn holders, and eat them” (omg the cuteness!), and then come up with nothing better than this: “Like a cold spring at the bottom of a warmer lake, old Swedish-gened depression was seeping up inside him.” I guess that’s a nice sentence. Nice enough. But this is supposed to be the next great American novel. And this reviewer apparently thinks this great American novel is full of beautiful sentences. And presumably, in this reviewer’s estimation, this is one of the most beautiful sentences among all the beautiful sentences in the next great American novel. Like I said, I’m just not seeing it.
Still, I am feeling a bit daunted to take on all these positive reviews. I mean really, people love this book. And you know, that’s great. I don’t want to take anything away from their enjoyment. So instead, I thought I would just tell you some of the things I didn’t love, and leave it at that. There are actually a lot of things I didn’t love, but I’m pretty sure I would need to re-read the book to do a really thoughtful and close analysis, and I barely got through it the first time. So here is one thing I didn’t love — the first in a series. More soon I promise (and spoiler alert; I am presuming you have read Freedom, or at least don’t mind having key plot points revealed):
I liked the first two sections of Freedom best; I found them engaging, nicely written, funny. I thought the first section, “Good Neighbors” neatly summed up a type — earnest white folks who move to the city and want to be good neighobrs — a type that I am, ahem, somewhat familiar with. I found the second section, “Mistakes Were Made” — the self-analytical autobiography wittily written in the third person by the main female character, Patty, at the behest of her therapist — so engaging that I could barely put the book down. Unlike some of my sister critics (apparently), I found Patty the most complex and fully-realized character in the book (it was the men, actually, I found to be fairly flat and not that interesting).
I did, however, have problems with both of these sections. In “Good Neighbors,” I kept waiting to meet some poor black folk of the sort who generally live in neighborhoods that are being gentrified by middle class white folk. For awhile, I thought I should cut Franzen some slack, because, after all, how many issues can one writer tackle in one novel? But as it turns out, Franzen can tackle a whole hell of a lot of issues. Like all the biggies in the past decade or two. With the exception, apparently, of race. It seemed to me, as Patty might say, “weird” that in twenty years of gentrifying a ghetto, there just weren’t any poor black folk. Being, as I am, a white person who has been on the vanguard of integrating/gentrifying a historically black neighborhood, this omission strikes me as, yeah, weird.
My issue with “Mistakes Were Made” is that I just didn’t believe it. This section purports to be Patty’s autobiography, written by her about her life, but in the third person. As I’ve said, it’s funny, and engaging, and a great read. But it was hard for me to suspend disbelief for long. Patty was a jock in college who only tolerated academic classes so that she could play basketball. There’s no question that a jock can also be a very smart person, and that is part of Patty’s complexity. But it strikes me as very unlikely that this particular jock — as smart as she is — could write like this. I mean, this section is really Franzen writing at his best; if Patty could write like this, then she should be the next great American novelist. Also, if Patty can be this insightful about herself and her relationships when she writes about them, I needed some help understanding how she could be and stay — for years and years after she writes this — so completely tone-deaf and stuck in actually living her relationships. The third-person autobiography, while clever and engaging, seemed to me to be Franzen wanting to have his cake and eat it too. I didn’t believe it so much that it kept pulling me out of the story to shake my head about how much I didn’t believe it — even while, as I said, I would promptly dive back in because it was so engaging.
…. to be continued ….