Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Freedom", a novel by Jonathan Franzen

It's been a week since the last page of "Freedom" was closed here. It is, on the surface, a wonderful family saga told over a 30 year span, with characters that the reader can detest, love, sympathize with or not care less about. It's all in a recent or current lifetime that we follow the family and their closest friends through successes, failures, angst, and acceptance. For this reader, interest rarely flagged and the well written story unfolded with ease. That's enough for a good book. The overall impact of this novel, stepping back and living with it, can have a salutary impact on readers with certain experiences and interests. This writer is one of those readers.

Throughout "Freedom" there are phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that resonate immediately as humor or insight that is unexpected. Most of the humor is in the form of an instant realization, but there are several riffs of a few pages that reminded me, in their sustained eccentric joke, of the wine jellies and candies ramble in Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow". The insights create smiles as well and are mostly people related or family related, as well as some substantial forays into public policy issues and bad government.

Many reviews have been written so the main message here is that this book is worth a shot for any fiction reader.

There is one other thought that lingers with me. There is a sensibility to the book that I did not expect. The characters are all vulnerable to satirical or hysterical realism . They represent familiar poses. One may be able to see or hear their actions or words in other places or other times. They are flawed and they are aging, and participating clumsily in the life that we are stuck with. With all of that, there is still a tender touch of redemption in Franzen's depictions. They are good people, just people, getting by, which is a surprise.

Franzen's good friend David Wallace had two short stories in The New Yorker in the year or so before his death, both part of a larger work that was underway and will in some form be published, apparently, in 2011. Those stories took a careful and unequivocally positive approach to characters in simple, stressful, but undramatic circumstances. The writing could be described as tediously and excruciating well done, far from the big flashy strokes of Infinite Jest. The characters are cared for.

Franzen and Wallace corresponded. They read each other's work. It seems that they were on the same path, vastly different styles but intellects of the same era.


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