Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Jonathan Franzen, _Freedom_

FINISHED THIS A few months ago, but you know how it gets once the semester starts... in any case, I emerged thinking Freedom certainly a good novel, but not a great one; not as compelling as The Corrections, I would say, which might turn out to be a great one. There is nothing in Freedom to match the streak of satiric fantasy that came up with Corecktall, for one thing, and more damagingly Franzen does not inhabit any of the characters of this novel -- save Joey Berglund, perhaps -- with the uncanny intimacy he brought to the Lambert siblings.

As for the comparisons to Tolstoy that were in the air a year ago... what were people thinking? After all, Tolstoy did write about an infidelity-racked marriage, so direct comparisons are possible. In the fascinatingly caddish betrayer with rare flashes of conscience role, the matchup is Richard Katz vs. Vronsky. No contest, really. There is no scene here to rival Vronsky's steeplechase on Frou-Frou. One gets the feeling Richard was supposed to be a swirling vortex of nihilistic energy, but he more often comes off as just a grouch. Moreover, his putative status as 80s indie rock cult figure is unpersuasive next to Jennifer Egan's much more knowing depiction of that scene in A Visit from the Goon Squad.

In the role of the devoted, conscientious, uncharismatic plodder occasionally capable of lashing out, we have Walter Berglund and Alexei Karenin. We can call it even, I suppose.

Then we have Anna herself and... Patty Berglund. Oy.

The best part of Freedom is the subplot with the Berglunds' son Joey, his doggedly (and doggily) devoted high school girlfriend Connie, and the dazzlingly well-connected rich girl who is the sister of his college roommate. Is it as rich as the Levin-Kitty subplot? Erm, no. But Franzen knows Joey to the bone, and everything about the character convinces.

Still -- if posterity ever wants to know how the white American professional class of the late 20th and early 21st century walked, talked, argued, and fought, what they read, watched, and listened to, they could hardly do better than to pick up Freedom. Franzen is not our Tolstoy, but he may well be our William Dean Howells.

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