I have now finished Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s new novel. I’ve published my review also on the Waterstone Website as they kindly sent me a pre-publication copy, which meant that I was one of the few lucky ones (including President Obama, who apparently has taken it on holiday with him) to be able to read the book before it is actually in the bookshops. Well, whatever you do next week, do go and get your copy – it is an absolutely great read and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
It is hardly surprising that Franzen took nine years to complete Freedom. The book gives a marvellous account of the lives and relationships of an American family, the Berglunds; about what it is like to live in post second world war 20th century America which moves into the uncertainties of global terror and war with Iraq into the 21st century.
The book starts with a bird’s eye view of the neighbourhood in which Patty and Walter used to live, and we are introduced to the gossip of some of their previous neighbours about what they were like. Then the narrative zooms up close into the lives of the couple, their friend Richard, their two children Joey and Jessica and their parents and siblings. There is Patty’s written account, a therapeutic, at times hilarious and sad, comment on her relationship with Walter and Richard. Subsequently there are the different perspectives on the unfolding story of their lives by their son Joey, their friend Richard Katz and from the perspective of Walter himself and then again Patty’s. The book finishes with a final authorial perspective, as if the camera takes the wide angled lens again, to have a final look at what is happening to Patty and Walter.
Franzen’s style of writing is just perfect, the seemingly effortless way in which he creates his characters, his use of very long sentences, streams of consciousness of one character or another, that crawl from the beginning of a page to the very end or even further to the next.
Characters muddle along, make choices almost unwittingly, within the freedoms they have. Patty loves Walter but is also attracted to his friend Richard. Richard loves Walter as his university best friend and admires him, but is also attracted to Patty. Joey loves the girl next door, Connie, but also wants his freedom, and when there is an opportunity to go along with his friend Jonathan’s beautiful sister Jenna on a pre-booked holiday, he takes it, only to discover that his real love is for Connie.
At various points there is direct reference to ‘freedom’. Jonathan’s father says that freedom of choice is a pain in the ass and that it is imperative that free people must let go of whatever bad logic they use in their reasoning and we should convince them of using a better logic, by whatever means necessary. Walter’s grandfather left Sweden to live in America, but ends up feeling resentful and angry with the kind of freedom offered, one which he has to share with so many other people.
The book is a masterpiece of observation of the human condition in the ‘free’ world and in this respect can be compared to the great Russian novels. In fact, at one point Patty reads War and Peace, an allusion to the vastness and continuous mystery of human choices and their smallness in the great world around them, with wars (Iraq, Israel), terrorist attacks (9/11), the love of a family members and friends for each other and their friends, the haphazard way in which those around muddle through, the happiness and the tragedies, the tragic comedy of modern life as we know it, and not to forget the wonderful philosophical discussions that seem to erupt and then tail of into something quite different. Not unlike the way most of us in our conversations tend to jump from one thing to another.
This is a great read.