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Old 04-25-2016, 06:24 PM View Post #1 (Link) Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
ScottyMcGee (Offline)
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I remember Jonathan Franzen appearing in an issue of Time Magazine a while ago when I was still in college. The article stated that the first greatest novel of the 21st Century was his book "Freedom." Intrigued, I went to buy Freedom, only to leave it on my shelf relatively untouched for five or six years.



Unfortunately I got the "Oprah Edition" - but thankfully it was just a little annoying sticker that I was able to remove. But I hate that shit. It's an obnoxious blemish on literature.

Synopsis:
It's difficult to summarize succinctly what Freedom is about in an exciting pitch other than "It's about a Midwestern family." We follow the Berglunds: Walter and his wife Patty, their son Joey, and then Walter's old college friend Richard Katz. This novel has been touted as a Great American Novel, using the Bush Administration years from 2004 to 2008 as the setting.

Prose:
Very dense. In the few times I tried reading this in the past, I never got past the first ten pages. Franzen tends to "tell" a lot rather than "show". There's so much summary. It's not badly written - not at all. But it's like watching an Oscar-winning film. Even though there's nothing really BAD about it you wouldn't want to watch it again because it's so tedious and long. It's only 597 pages, and we've all read books longer than that, but the content of a book is what makes it go by fast or slow. Freedom is definitely a slow run. The worst parts were when Franzen narrated on political, environmental and legal backgrounds; the character Walter gets involved in environmental and political issues. Honestly, there were a couple instances in which I just skipped paragraphs about those things.

Story:
At the same time though, if you can get past the heavy introduction, you'll get warped into the family drama of the Berglunds and their friend Katz. It certainly does live up to being the first Great American Novel of the 21st Century. Franzen has woven a wonderful cloth of neurotic, fucked up characters against a lush historical background of the shitstorm that was the Bush Administration. (It's funny seeing myself label it as a "historical background" since I grew up in those years, and most of you reading this too.) You relive those years, for better or for worse (let's admit it - for the worse) and what people generally argued about and how the nation became so polarized. Despite the dense prose, it is still very much entertaining and grabs your attention on the drama.

Nothing here is written in first-person, although Patty's chapters are written by her but she wrote in third-person. As a result, I feel like it was all just Franzen writing it, really. That's one complaint I have. Even though Patty's chapters were written by her, it felt no different than reading a chapter that followed Katz or Walter or Joey, except where she referenced herself as "the autobiographer".

One thing that came to me was that it's hard to say exactly where this story begins. In the conventional sense, as in from page 1 onwards, it begins with Joey detaching himself from his parents to live with their neighbors, since he's in love with their daughter. Patty detests their neighbors so much. But really there's a huge backstory with the parents that acts as a reason for why Patty reacts this way and how they all came to this point. The book later goes even further into the family history, albeit snippets. In the end, you feel like you yourself are a Berglund.

Theme(s):
Halfway through the book, it becomes increasingly obvious that there are parallels between the parents and their son Joey. I think Franzen is trying to show how family history and experiences can repeat themselves, even when we believe we are not like our parents or not like our children.

Verdict:
I still enjoyed it. I would want to read it again later when I don't have so many other books waiting for me to read. I would also want to read it with my girlfriend when we both have the time because it's a great book to discuss with a friend or loved one.

If you're into Great American Novels and heavy literature, yeah, then read this. Otherwise, I don't think you'd find it in yourself to get through this. I'm not sure if I would call it THE greatest American Novel, which I've even seen some sources label it as such. It does a really good job at illustrating the liberal vs conservative backdrop that the characters interact with and are affected by.
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						Last edited by ScottyMcGee; 04-25-2016 at 06:26 PM.
					
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Old 04-26-2016, 12:12 AM View Post #2 (Link)
Dabs (Offline)
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This is such an interesting reaction because it's actually kind of different than mine and the reactions of a lot of people I know.

I enjoyed this book. I was entertained by it, but I would keep it a fine distance away from anything considered "Great American Literature". Although, to be fair, I really don't give a shit about what is and is not a great American novel. I just don't think it's all that deft. Entertaining, yes, but not deft.

I found it interesting that you called the prose dense. That first section, sure, but after that it's fairly easy reading in my opinion. Even the political and legal diatribes are written in a simplistic way that doesn't really ask much of the reader, in terms of the prose. The content is a bit challenging, yes, but not the presentation. I actually really appreciated the fact that he even took the time to include that stuff. It's nice to see people breaking from the very politically motivated existence of the "show, don't tell" status quo without making it completely fucking unbearable and overly verbose (Franzen is a bit verbose, and often needlessly so, but he's almost like verbose-lite).

Stylistically, Franzen always struck me as someone who wrote high-minded literature for the average reader--which is definitely a pretentious thing to say. That said, I do think the notion of an average reader is a bit contrived and actually harder to define than most might think since we are, you know, complex individuals. I guess my point is that Franzen wants to be both challenging and sell lots of books, and as such his style is... kinda bleh. It lacks conviction, in my opinion, and I think it's why it can feel so extraneous and superficial. In other words, his verbosity is a bit pointless.

The form of the novel is also kind of grating and annoying, and I wonder why it couldn't have been presented in a simpler format. You're definitely right in saying that Patty's chapters sound just like Franzen... which kind of defeats the point of them being in the first person at all. Joey and Richard are really annoying characters. Richard's whole purpose in the novel, in terms of plot, seems to boil down to a very simple, singular point in the end
Spoiler:
you know, leaving that thing in that place so you-know-who could find it.
Joey's character arc didn't feel well resolved, either. I mean, he has one, but his relationship with Connie isn't adequately addressed, I felt. Joey was probably the main reason I struggled with the novel. I actually stopped for a few weeks during his second chapter (I think it was his second) because I just found him so unbearable.

So much of this book is frustrating for me, and so much of it fails. Like I said, I find it entertaining, and I appreciate that he diverges from some writing school standards--god knows we could use some more politically-minded, challenging literature in the mainstream--but he doesn't pull everything together. I probably won't read this again and I'd certainly keep it off my list of Great American Novels.
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Old 04-26-2016, 04:31 AM View Post #3 (Link)
ScottyMcGee (Offline)
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I have a friend who I think is in love with Franzen. Though to be frank, he's kind of a pompous ass. He even looks like Franzen, which is hilarious.

I did find Joey pretty irritating but I didn't hold the same sort of distaste for him as, say, the near-entire pompous cast of Game of the Thrones. He was just a little prick who thankfully SPOILER ALERT
Spoiler:
fully realized the shit behind the business he got into and thus reality finally got to him.
But yes, his story did seem to end abruptly. I wouldn't say it was unresolved - rather there wasn't a memorable final scene from his POV. His story ran parallel to Walter's in that
Spoiler:
they both had affairs and by the end returned to the person they were originally were with, albeit Walter took a while longer to do so. Joey realized Jenna was a fanciful infatuation that meant nothing. Walter was in denial about still being in love with Patty after he kicked her out and tried to start with Lalitha. And at first Walter and Joey didn't understand each other but the irony was that they were going through some of the same shit.


In reference to the format of the novel, at first I was like, "This is. . .weird?" but I really didn't mind it by the end. It was just different, and I like different.
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Old 04-26-2016, 05:36 AM View Post #4 (Link)
Dabs (Offline)
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Well, Franzen is a pompous ass, so there you go. lol

I'm going to aggressively disagree with you about the cast of Game of Thrones, especially in relation to Franzen's work. I find that cast largely human and moving--even some of the more "evil" people have their vulnerable moments--whereas Franzen only has Patty going for him as far as complex, human characters go. Walter is kind of a whipping boy and, and while he is a bit sympathetic I feel like he's just there so I can feel bad for him. Joey and Richard are just grating. I've read part of The Corrections, the book that came before Freedom, and it's apparent to me that Franzen has this thing where he thinks he's better than his characters, and it makes it so difficult to see them as human and complex. There's a way to write unlikeable or grotesque characters, but he's rather far from being the master, and he'll never be great at it if he holds himself above them.

The reflection is between Walter and Joey feels spot on, but there's still so much that's not addressed about Joey and Connie's (is that her name?) relationship. It feels like such a cop-out that the abusiveness isn't addressed in a substantial way. It's just mentioned a little by Connie's mom, if I remember correctly, and then nothing changes about them and then they get their happy ending with no implication that something more complex is at work. And I guess if he really is a reflection of his father, his relationship will just pan out in a similar way to Walter's, but I dunno. I didn't get that sense at all. I felt like Franzen just didn't explore the dynamics of Joey and Connie's relationship.

I guess I don't care if something is different if I don't see a point to it. If it's different for the sake of being different, then I end up just wishing that it were normal so I wouldn't have to puzzle out why it is the way it is. And, granted, I'm sure there's a reason Franzen wrote it that way, but the content of the story is so conventional that I just don't see what the structure is illuminating that would be lost in a standard novel format.
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Old 04-26-2016, 04:02 PM View Post #5 (Link)
Georgy (Offline)
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Jonathan Franzen is the greatest American novelist, Donald Trump is the greatest candidate for president. Guys, what's happened to America?
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