Saturday, October 23, 2010

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Never before has a new novel brought with it such hype and hyperbole. Franzen on the cover of Newsweek. Franzen on the Oprah show -- and this after he got his previous novel, The Corrections, booted off her book club list! Franzen on the president's reading list, with his new not-yet-released book phographed in the clutches of Obama. Franzen on the cusp of a dustup in the literary world, such that the word Franzenfreude is coined in his honor; well, honor may not be exactly the right way to characterize the word. (Franzenfreude refers to the phenomenon that the powers-to-be of the literary world take work seriously only if it's written by men. White men.

So it was with much interest and anticipation that I sat down to listen to the audiobook version of "Freedom," which I had to nab from the library of the shiny suburb to the north, as my local system didn't stock it. And it is with great pleasure that I tell you, YES! It did live up to its hype! Freedom tells the story of the lives and marriage of Patti and Walter Berglund over the course of several decades.

Franzen's great strength is in the fullness, texture and depth with which he draws his characters. It's shocking how completely he gets into his characters' heads. Sometimes I think that characterization is a writer's primary task: draw the characters precisely, completely, and believably and they will do the rest, behaving in a way that befits their personalities, and thereby creates the plot. Franzen is also spectacular at elucidating the world that his characters maneuver in, and showing us the interplay between the state of society and the state of the individual, and how each of these two conditions effects the other. (Which brings to mind the old adage: The personal is the political.)

Despite my under-developed fiction gene; despite that I think that nowadays memoirs have supplanted novels as the most culturally significant way to tell a broad, far-reaching story, Franzen's new novel reminded me of the power of that form. When a novel is executed with such exquisite care and attention it can't help but compel. I'm only sorry to have finished "Freedom," and that I'll have to wait for Franzen's next offering.

Oh, and by the way, if you're an audiobook fan -- get your hands on this one! The narrator does a fabulous job conveying the pessimistic, personality-disordered grouchiness that is part and parcel of Franzen's characters.

And, click on the link below for Salon's recent Franzen interview

Reading Club interview: Jonathan Franzen answers your questions

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