Friday, September 17, 2010


Jonathan Franzen writes novels for men--and women, but he has said that one of his objections to being an Oprah pick for The Corrections was that he didn't want the novel to get a reputation as a women's novel. So I went into reading his newest novel, Freedom, with that in mind.

What I loved about this novel from the first is the writing. Describing his main characters, he describes their increasingly gentrified neighborhood:
"...she might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street."

He manages to capture the spirit of an age, even with fictional song lyrics, like these from his character Richard:

"What tiny little beads up in those big fat SUV's!
My friends, you look insanely happy at the wheel!
And the Circuit City smiling of a hundred Kathy Lees!
A wall of Regis Philbins! I tell you I'm starting to feel

When Richard has his inevitable rock-and-roll breakdown, he goes to a clinic "for six weeks of detox and snide resistance to the gospel of recovery." That strikes me as particularly good writing, because of the brevity with which it conveys character.

Franzen is very good at presenting character. Even his female character, Patty, thinks in a way that I have to admit seems genuine. In her forties, she finally "acknowledged realities about her physical appearance which she'd been ignoring in her fantasy world...she humbled herself." Having just done this myself, I can't say it doesn't ring true.

But it really rubs me the wrong way (ahem) to read that a woman's intelligence lies in her sexual organs:
"Connie had a wry, compact intelligence, a firm little clitoris of discernment and sensitivity...."

On the other hand, Patty really does have an interesting thought process:
"I feel so old, Richard. Just because a person isn't making good use of her life, it doesn't stop her life from passing. In fact, it makes her life pass all the quicker."
"You don't look old. You look great."
"Well, and that's what really counts, isn't it? I've become one of those women who put a ton of work into looking OK. If I can just go on and make a beautiful corpse, I'll have the whole problem pretty well licked."

It's the male characters who intrigue, infuriate, and carry the plot. As an American, I found this kind of throw-away line, part of the back story about how the main male character's, Walter's, ancestors came to America, one of the most intriguing:
" wasn't the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn't get along well with others."

Walter is the most interesting character; he is the source of all the ideas that everyone who has been reading this novel is looking for. He makes the kind of ethical compromises that most of us make, but writ larger, as he is actively working to save some habitat for a little blue bird, the cerulean warbler:
"But the environmental mainstream doesn't want to talk about doing things right, because doing things right would make the coal companies look less villainous and MTR more palatable politically."

He gets to expound on the state of America today in conversations with his friend Richard:
"This was what was keeping me awake at night," Walter said. "This fragmentation. Because it's the same problem everywhere. It's like the internet, or cable TV--there's never any center, there's no communal agreement, there's just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it's all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli."

And Walter gets the best rants of anyone in this novel:
"In 1970 it was cool to care about the planet's future and not have kids. Now the one thing everyone agrees on, right and left, is that it's beautiful to have a lot of babies. The more the better. Kate Winslet is pregnant, hooray, hooray. Some dimwit in Iowa just had octuplets, hooray, hooray. The conversation about the idiocy of SUVs stops dead the minute people say they're buying them to protect their precious babies."

Even the fights Walter and Patty have, after years of marriage, ring true to me. They refer to so many loosely-related things that it's hard to offer you a quotation to show this--which will tell those of you in a long-running marriage how true to life they really are. At one point Patty says, as probably every long-married spouse has said to every other at some point in an argument: "Oh, finally it comes out! Finally we're getting somewhere!"

So I liked a lot of things about reading Freedom. Franzen said, in an interview with Alden Mudge, "I want the pages to turn without effort." And they do. I was immersed in the story, and enjoying the complexity of the characters, even through the occasional jarring note.

Towards the end of the novel, though, I can't follow Walter's fanatic bird-loving towards domestic cat-hating, and I can't rejoice in the muted good fortune of his irritating and facile son. It's hard to believe in the sort-of-happy ending. And personally, I have a hard time with the self-conscious cuteness of the writing at the point where the "iron cauldrons and racks" which Walter's father used in making candy for Christmas are described as "necromantic."

That's my female (and non-necromantic) view on reading Freedom. For a male view, check out yesterday's post at The New Dork Review of Books.


Betty (Beth) said...

Hmmmm, I've definitely heard good things about this, but I was waiting for your take on it before I ventured picking it up.

I think I'll be adding it to my (ever-growing) reading list.

And, by the way, I linked over from twitter today because your tweet definitely made me look twice! Thanks for making me chuckle. :-)

FreshHell said...

Another hmmm. I just finished a very masculine memoir that had really good bits in it but little that had emotional depth. Which isn't always a bad thing. I might check this book out of the library at some point.

Greg Zimmerman said...

I'm not sure I see Franzen's comments the way you do - it wasn't that he didn't want his novel being seen as a "women's novel," it's that he didn't want to TURN OFF his male readers with the Oprah notoriety, which I think is a fair concern, given that 99 percent of Oprah's audience is women. That's a fine line to be sure, but an important one. I'm sure Franzen is very happy his book is read by women. He just didn't want it to get labeled ONLY as a novel for women, which the Oprah label has been known to do.

But we do agree that Walter is the most interesting character. He kept surprising me - it was hard to get a read on what kind of person he really was. And, yes, that rant is FANTASTIC!

I always saw the "cat hating" or, more precisely, the idea of the cat itself as a symbol for freedom in the context of Walter's plea for overpopulation. It was only at his low point, but at his greatest level of freedom, that he was most worried about his freedom (symbolically, via the songbirds) being infringed upon. That's why he went a little pyscho about the cats.

Very nice review! I'm glad you enjoyed it, too.

Jeanne said...

That's the best compliment I've had all day--that you were waiting on my take before you read a novel!

And glad you liked the tweet. I couldn't resist saying that I don't think with my clitoris.

This has emotional depth, just more for the male characters than the female, I thought. Which is understandable, isn't it, from a male writer?

I read one criticism of Franzen, who evidently once said he doesn't watch TV, for trying to be a novelist in a TV-watching culture without watching it himself...this may be part of my problem understanding why Oprah's recommendation would turn men off (I don't watch TV).

Yes, the cats are definitely symbolic of a kind of freedom, and Walter is going over the edge about them. What I should have said, and didn't say well, is that the specificity of his hate for cats--especially the scene in which he kidnaps a neighbor's cat and takes it to a shelter in a far-away city where they'll never find it--interfered with my capacity to appreciate the symbolic level of the fiction.

Amanda said...

Apparently there's some big controversy surrounding this book, but oddly, while I've seen talk of controversy on twitter, I haven't actually heard what it's about. Was the the Oprah thing?

Jeanne said...

Amanda, yes. Oprah was going to make his previous novel one of her recommended books until he said he didn't want her to, and there was a big furor about how he was a literary snob. Now she's picking Freedom as one of her recommended books, and he's going along with it. There's a pretty concise version of the story on Wikipedia.

Melissa said...

The original twitter thing was #Franzenfreude, about the fact that he was being hailed on the cover of Time as the Great American Novelist of this generation. Jennifer Weiner and Judi Picoult objected to the fact that such a title would never be bestowed upon a female author by the publishing powers that be. Now it's about Oprah.

I finished Freedom in three days. I couldn't put it down; the writing is gorgeous. My main gripes: I did think Connie was a very two-dimensional character, and Walter's rants drove me nuts at times. I also found it hard to swallow that an environmentalist would work for the coal industry.

Still loved the book, though.

(Also: LOL @ the necromantic comment!)

Jeanne said...

Oh yeah--you're right... I kind of ignored the whole Franzenfreude scuffle because I didn't think Weiner and Picoult had much of a point.

The environmentalist working for coal struck a chord with me, because of what I recently read in Temple Grandin's book about how animal rights activists can no longer work with the livestock industry, and how they'd get more done if the two sides wouldn't draw themselves so far apart.

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to read this -- I absolutely loved the Corrections. Those parents -- that house, with the florists' sponge stuff saved n the basement cabinet. It's the house I grew up in.

Anonymous said...

Also, I think Greg's take on the conflict is correct --

Jeanne said...

I think Greg is correct, too. It's us pseudo-intellectuals with no TV who can't tell reality from a hole in the ground.

Love the image of the florist sponge in the basement cabinet--I'd forgotten about that.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

Thanks for actually reviewing the book rather than talking about Franzen - I'm still not sure if I want to read it or not, but at least I sort of know what it's about now :)

Jenners said...

I definitely want to read this book ... and I was loving the excerpts you picked out to share.

I love that after all that flap about The Corrections, "Freedom" is now Oprah's last book club pick. A full circle.

Avid Reader said...

I didn't love The Corrections, but I am curious about Freedom. I haven't decided if I'm going to read it or not.

I do think the Oprah thing is hilarious. He was so adamant about it first time around.

Trapunto said...

I read the NY times review and now this. I'm going to let myself get whipped up to a slow frenzy of of expectation before I get my library-queue copy of this book.

Yes, I genuflect before the throne of Franzen.

I even kind of enjoy his missteps like the ridiculous clitoris line, because it shows he's not one to pussyfoot.


My favorite quote here was actually his wish that the pages would turn without effort. It seems rather humble and kind. Which I think he is, underneath, based on his essays.

Jodie said...

'he didn't want the novel to get a reputation as a women's novel' ugh, so badly phrased. And yet you can see why from a practical point of view he wouldn't want that, because it could do his critical reputation damage because the critical response to womens book can be messed up(although it would be brilliant for his sales, because women buy more books than men).

I really want to read this after your post because it sounds like one of those books with lots to offer and you've made the characters sound intriguing. But I think my money would be better spent on someone who doesn't say things that make me so angry - whcih is why it's so excellent that we have libraries.

Kailana said...

I was really surprised that Oprah picked another book by him for her book club after all the drama of last time. Since I enjoyed The Corrections I will likely read this at some point, but not sure when!

Jeanne said...

Kim, yer welcome...and there's an overview of the plot in the interview I linked to!

Jenners, I like to let the writing show what I'm telling about it!

Avid Reader, I think you'd like reading it, but might be occasionally jarred by some of the same kinds of things that got to me. Although mostly I liked Patty, her sections were the hardest for me; I'd put the book down there for a while.

Trapunto, when you put it that way, it sounds admirable--he is definitely not pussyfooting around some of these issues (now I have the entire cast of Babes in Toyland pussyfooting in my head). The clitoris line, though--I think sometimes he just gets carried away with thinking of cute ways to say something. (Not all black kettles are necromantic, but it's a bigger word than witchy--not that either word had much to do with what he was describing about the candy-making.)

Jodie, it is excellent that we have libraries. As you know, I'm big on them!

I think the whole argument about whether women's novels are considered as "literary" as men's is kind of silly, but that's because I revert to my 18th-century British Lit roots and figure it will all sort itself out in the next hundred years. A writer can preen himself on being "literary" and if subsequent generations disagree, he'll be forgotten just the same as the self-conscious "hack" writer.

Jeanne said...

Kailana, I must confess that I couldn't resist timing this post to coincide with the announcement of Oprah's pick!

Anonymous said...

Hm, I think I'm starting to not want to read this because of Franzen's obvious problems with "women readers". I'm sorry, but such labels just rub me the wrong way. As does the clitoris reference. But then, it does seem to make an interesting read, so maybe I should get over myself and read it?

Jeanne said...

Iris, I don't mean to emphasize the male/female thing too much. You may find yourself putting the book down at the Patty sections occasionally, like I did, but I think overall you'll find that it's a page turner.

SFP said...

Cat hatred is a metaphor for his anger at the predator Richard Katz, don't you think? (Although I still feel rather guilty for pawning the book off on my cat as his birthday present, let me tell you. Good thing he can't read.)

I really loved this book. And I think Franzen gets an undeservedly bad rap. He's championed women writers--Alice Munro, Christina Stead, just off the top of my head--and it's sad he's the figurehead for gender bias right now.

Jeanne said...

SFP, I can certainly see cat hatred as a metaphor for "the predator Richard Katz"--even his last name won't let you escape that idea!

I didn't love this book as much as you did, but I'm very glad I read it. And as you demonstrate, it has a lot of nice, juicy quotable bits.

litlove said...

I didn't find it as gender-unbiased as you did. I felt that Franzen liked his male characters, Walter and Richard, but had little sympathy for Patty, as evidenced by the bizarre choice of writing her 'autobiography' in a distant third person. And the rape that supposedly lies at the basis of her story is never really used as a way to make us sympathetic towards her. It's more that she was stupid. Connie is not a real person and her mother is as gulity as Patty of over-intrusive mothering (very much a theme - the fathers come off much lighter)

I don't know. Once I began to feel that Franzen invited us to understand his male characters in a way that he didn't invite us to understnad his women, I kept coming up against instances of it. But at the end of the day, that's just how it read to me.

Jenners said...

Well done review. Love all the excerpts you shared. I think it is a polarizing book. I also disliked these characters intensely so often ... but then came to pity and almost love them. And I'm with you ... I do think Joey (and Connie)got off a little too easy. (They could almost have their own book .... that was one weird relationship. It was like Franzen kind of skated over their fate; I can't imagine that is going to be happy and wonderful forever. Connie is soooooo messed up.)

Jeanne said...

Litlove, I've been thinking about what you said. And finally I have to agree, especially about the overly intrusive mothering. That's not a subject on which I have much perspective, though, so I was doubting my own thoughts and feelings.