Wednesday, 22 September 2010

‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen

The wait is nearly over. There have been numerous customer enquiries, and the books, which arrived about a week ago, are safely sitting on the embargoed shelf. After weeks of intensive publicity in which it felt as though one could probably have picked up an issue of ‘Birding World’, ‘Girl Talk’, or ‘Classic Motor Monthly’ and found an article about it, Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ finally goes on sale tomorrow. Much of the coverage for ‘Freedom’, predictably, focussed on the intensity of the coverage. Lionel Shriver (who had not then read the book) complained that it would not have received anywhere near as much attention had Franzen been female, and perhaps she has a point, when one considers the comparatively modest fame enjoyed by, say, Joyce Carol Oates, whose output is simply astounding in terms of depth, variety and sheer quantity. But you take nine years to write something, and it starts to feel like more of an event, so here we are. Thanks to my privileged position as a bookseller, I have already been there, read it, literally got the Tshirt.* And I loved ‘Freedom’.
The epigraph for ‘The Corrections’ could be Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be The Verse”. ‘Freedom’ also covers the tragedy of the succeeding generations of a family trying to correct the mistakes of their parents and becoming further entrenched in their own. Fuller, richer, more compassionate than ‘The Corrections’, I enjoyed it far more. If comfortable and exciting are not mutually exclusive terms, that is how I would like to describe it. Warm and often funny, Franzen’s prose was for me the chief joy of the book, and dipping into it on Tube journeys and lunch breaks was like sinking into a squidgy sofa.
Writers have a very fine line to tread when it comes to respecting a reader’s intelligence and making plain what they want to communicate. The acclaim that ‘Freedom’ has been enjoying suggests that Franzen has got the balance about right, although he does err on the side of over-enunciation. The concept of freedom is quite explicitly addressed by several characters; Walter sees freedom as unrestricted growth and a way to destruction, a variation on his father’s view that freedom is only the freedom to go to hell, and Joey envies others for their freedom from the rules of argument while Patty is stuck in the bubblegum consistency of her sister’s looping logic. As in ‘The Corrections’, Franzen gently but insistently circles round his topic, repeatedly leading his readers back to the same point from different angles.
Perhaps when reading a novel everyone secretly does want to read about themselves, but with Franzen I am always very consciously afraid that he will start writing about me. ‘The Corrections’ seemed to be so exactly about my grandparents it was almost disturbing and the scrutiny he put the characters under was so harsh I did not really care to recognise myself in any of them. With the partial exception of Enid I found the women in ‘The Corrections’ flat and unreal, but Patty is a triumph. Jessica is not so well realised as the other characters; intelligent , independent and well-adjusted, her mother does not pay a great deal of attention to her, and neither does Franzen. But perhaps this only started to bother me when he started to describe her irritation at Joey’s easily amassed fortune set against her struggles in the unlucrative field of literary publishing.
I had my first taste of ‘Freedom’ from the New Yorker, which featured an extract about Patty’s early life in the form of a short story, titled “Agreeable”. Narrated in the third person, it comes as a shock that Patty is actually the writer of this piece, which forms part of an autobiography written on a therapist’s instructions. Instead of being a character set out for us to observe, like a butterfly pinned to a board, she is given the freedom to narrate her own story. Within the novel, Franzen has his characters reading books that so closely reflect who they are, and one wonders whether he is trying to suggest that their narratives form the structure through which people understand themselves. ‘Walden’, after all, reads like a personal mission statement for Walter, while Milkman Dead, the protagonist of Toni Morrison’s ‘Song of Solomon’, like the best novel Joey has ever read, is a model of aggressively defended masculinity who dismisses his childhood lover and abnormally fixated mother.
‘Freedom’ took Franzen nine years to write; like Donna Tartt’s books, it has a certain weight to it, a sense that it has been rounded and honed. Such books reward rereading and reconsidering, because the detail has been so carefully planned out. I was given my copy of ‘Freedom’ two weeks before running a reading group on ‘Middlemarch’, which I had not started; by the time of the meeting I had finished them both (‘Freedom’ first – it was irresistible). There were marked similarities, both in their scope and in their uncompromising portrayals of unhappy partnerships straining over time. Despite its flaws, ‘Freedom’ is a classic in today’s idiom.
*I really didn’t think I would get to read an advance copy when our former manager poached it before leaving and kept conveniently forgetting to lend it to me. The Fourth Estate people laughed hollowly when I asked for another one, telling me it was rather popular and they were fresh out. But they did send Tshirts to my shop. Stacks and stacks of Tshirts. Huge massive enormous thanks to Jurgita, the best colleague in the world, who managed to track down a proof for me.

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