“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen – The Bitternness of Bitterns

This is my review of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

At first I was engrossed by the wry humour and bordering on ludicrous but telling anecdotes which capture the lives of families in a “gentrified” US suburb, centred round one Patty and Walter Berglund. Although I did not understand all the Americanisms, the first chapter rang true for me. I thought afterwards that it would make a good satirical short story in its own right.

With the switch in the second section to Patty’s “autobiography suggested by a therapist”, my interest waned rapidly. Patty’s stilted use of the third person, often calling herself “the autobiographer”, jarred on me, together with her unlikely ability to reproduce verbatim conversations at which she was not present. I also agree with the criticism that Patty’s voice is too close to the narrator’s . In fact, all the characters tend to speak in the same witty, wizecracking way, which makes them less convincing.

The twice-used device of presenting sections of the narrative in a third person autobiography in the style of a novel which is then used as a way of communicating with other characters, does not work for me. Also, Patty’s and Walter’s extreme shifts in emotion seem exaggerated to the point of caricature, so that one does feel for them as one should.

It puzzles me that Franzen is more concerned about a few minor typing errors (I read the offending version and hardly noticed them – and wasn’t the pulping of thousands of copies a contribution to the waste of resources which he lambasts in the story?), than he is about the possible inclusion of too many self-indulgent ramblings and rants.

His theme of the paradox of freedom in the early C21 is interesting. This is set in the context of the disruptive effects of the Iraqi war, and issues of global pollution, overpopulation and global economic instability. It does not matter to me that some of the facts – names of US politicians etc – are already dated. Frantzen has a fertile imagination, giving rise to some entertaining incidents, and his dialogues are often sharp and pithy.

All this is undermined for me by the fact that he does not know when to prune, and when to stop. Conversations are often too long, and drift into cues for the author to express his views. The whole thing is bogged down in excessive detail and inclusion of “unnecessary” scenes which destroy the momentum of the tale. It is sometimes hard to distinguish major from minor characters. For instance, it took me a while to realise that Richard Katz is more central to the theme than either Eliza or Carter, and for pages he is a 2D character to whom I cannot relate.

Worst of all for me is Franzen’s tendency to pontificate, often in quite a clunky or turgid, over-earnest style, to tell me what is going to happen, what to think about someone’s behaviour or personality, or just to hold forth on some aspect of American life.

The author may have been aiming for a modern day “War and Peace” in the style of Updike-cum-Bellow but I am left thinking that if this book had been shorter, more ruthlessly pruned and edited, with a tighter structure, particularly in the first half, it would have had more of an impact – even made a brilliant novel.

Having said this, I have certainly thought a good deal about the plot, characters and evocation of American landscapes since finishing “Freedom”…..

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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