November 4, 2010

Freedom a Review

It feels quite ostentatious of me, a lowly blogger and teacher, to review of a five hundred plus page novel written by one of my favorite writers of all time, but alas we are in the digitally communal age where everyone’s thoughts matter, and I suppose that also applies to me.

I can’t think of too many things I enjoy more than writing about books, unless you count music, so it is with pleasure and gusto I take on this task. For the most part my review of Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel Freedom is nothing but glowing, but I do afford myself the audacity to take a few jabs at the areas of plot.  See what I mean? Feels brazen and sacrilegious doesn’t it?  But let us begin:


 Franzen’s novel is a return to the sweeping grand classic novels ala Tolstoy and Steinbeck, but set in the modern age. Characters as complex and complicated as any in Anna Karenina seep into the readers psyche and take root. Sometimes deadly accurate, sometimes distorted, these characters, like mirrors, reveal to the reader our collective human condition. Freedom is a case study in character development. It should be used at universities across the land as a manual on how to create story through character development.

From the start, Franzen creates characters that are both agreeable and dysfunctional. As each chapters passes, we learn more about each character and their relationships with each other, as well as their relationships to the world. This review is not meant to be a deep analysis or play-by-play of the novel; it is too wide in scope and depth for that. It is enough to say that there are few parts if any, in this book that leave the reader disengaged. Like a film, you never want to end, Franzen moves us back and forth through time to truly understand what motivates people to care or not care, to act or to stay static. He not only monitors and transcribes the evolution of the people in the story, but also sheds light on the frustrations of how families and individuals deal with regression and indifference.

His characters are at times fragile, tender, and approachable, but can suddenly show their human weaknesses and become shallow and petty. Each character is a pendulum swinging back and forth between a series of dialectics: happiness and grief; peace and rage; understanding and ignorance. In short, Franzen acutely illustrates the fact that none of us are truly ever the same. Human beings are creatures in constant flux. The instability of individual personalities becomes amplified when we are put on collision courses with each other, even in the most apparently stable of situations- family.

This is the type of book you can’t put down, but don’t want to read too quickly for fear of missing something or worse reaching the end. Well paced and skillfully written, Franzen keeps the reader engaged throughout the novel not only with his intricate characters, but also through the use of powerful imagery. These images are not painted form the traditional palette of setting, but rather brought forth in the guise of emotion. The reader becomes lost in the elaborate emotional landscapes that Franzen paints with his expert hand.

Surprisingly, it was the plot of Freedom that was the least interesting. It feels as if Franzen was trying too hard to create a novel that was making social commentary. His critiques on the current state of politics, the environment, and social media felt forced and clich├ęd. It read like a liberal handbook, and as a liberal, I had little use for it.  It would have served him better to simply spend another 1000 pages allowing us to wallow around the heads of the characters. This trite use of current issues, however, should not discourage anyone to read this novel. I am sadden it is over, and I will miss the Bergulands terribly.

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