Saturday, August 28, 2010

Anticipating "Freedom"

Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" will be released to the public next week. Reviewers with their advance copies have been busy, for the most part cranking out the standard review format --- first paragraph that shows off the reviewer's literary credibility, second paragraph putting the book's writer into some perpective, next six or seven paragraphs giving an outline of what's in the book and the reviewer's interpretative insights, and final paragraphs in which the reviewer goes for the catchy remark that will end up being quoted in the book's marketing materials or become part of some literary set's vernacular.

Me, I'm just sitting here waiting for the book. Franzen's last major novel,"Corrections", was an involving family story that was representative of a familiar set piece. The observations and insights along the way were often real, as in the kind of reality that doesn't show up in a run-of-the-mill novel. At times the description of settings and the delving into characters minds became a bit tedious but more often than not the book flowed beautifully.

If the two portions of "Freedom" that have been excerpted as short stories in "The New Yorker" are indicative, this new Franzen is much more cleanly written and less caught up in its own importance. It takes family dynamics and history into the 21st century. I am eager for Amazon's delivery this Wednesday.

Of course I did read some reviews, carefully skimming and in some cases avoiding the middle six or seven paragraphs mentioned above. It's amazing how some reviewers seem to think that detailing the entire book is not a "spoiler" because they don't reveal the ending(as if they're reviewing a mystery or crime novel). Here are some representative examples of the reviews, from useless to helpful.

The worst review by far was in the Wall Street Journal. A reviewer named Sam Sachs talked about "Paradise Lost" in the first paragraph, in the second he completely misrepresents Franzen's core readership as if he's Nelson Demille or James Patterson or Janet Evanovich or other writers that overwhelm my public library's shelves. His middle paragraphs are a straightforward detailed summary of the entire book with little picky asides from his perspective, and in the closing paragraph he more or less apologizes for being so petty and goes for the big positive quote.

Middle ground review was in "The Economist". First paragraph mentions The Great American Novel and somehow gets the names of eight famous writers jammed in. Second paragraph get into "laurels" and the possible competitive reception, middle paragraphs are a well-done review, using examples and commenting on structure and content. The final paragraph goes clumsily for the big summary idea and, my God, mentions "Paradise Lost".

The class act was in the New York Times book review section and written by the editor of said publication. It skips completely the reviewer cred requirement, a so welcome move, and gets directly into Franzen's work. "Corrections" is interwoven into the commentary and while the middle section does give parts of the linear story there is a purpose. The review is thought provoking and does not need to wear on its sleeve an understanding of literature, or a love of it. It could be said that this NYT review is on the long side and excessively enthusiastic. That's not a problem, not now.

That will only be known once the book is read by those of us who wait our turn. The change of setting from St. Louis and Manhattan in "The Corrections" to St. Paul and Washington, D.C. in "Freedom" may have Franzen's own life once again written all over it, and that's an interesting starting point from this perspective. Good writing is a stand alone virtue. I have high hopes.


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