Friday, April 20, 2012

'Freedom' by Jonathan Franzen

20 April 2012

As I have said here before, I think Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 book, ‘The Corrections’, is one of the best new novels I’ve read in recent years. It took Franzen nine years to complete his next novel, ‘Freedom’, which I have just finished reading. A worthy successor to a modern classic, ‘Freedom’ is a mammoth work that once again addresses the state of the nation (and the world) through the minutiae of family life. As in ‘The Corrections’, the reader is shown events, in turn, through the eyes of each of the main characters. But whereas the earlier book pulled off the trick of making you sympathise simultaneously with people who held completely opposing points of view, in ‘Freedom’ I found all the principal characters fairly unlikeable. This didn’t stop me appreciating and enjoying the book – though it has to be said it’s quite a depressing tale of the breakdown of relationships. It is wonderfully written: the very first chapter in particular is a masterpiece which swiftly sets the scene and introduces the Berglund family through the curious observation of their neighbours – who then don’t feature again in the story (apart from a brief cameo towards the end). This approach bookends the novel which concludes with the introduction of a new nosey neighbour to update us on where Walter Berglund has ended up. Having just read ‘Treasure Island’ which has a fantastic plot driving it forward, ‘Freedom’ did, at times, seem to lack any clear plot and takes a very long time to develop its characters and relationships. Then, all of a sudden, Jonathan Franzen throws in major shocking plot developments, often happening off stage or between chapters. His focus is clearly on the people, the ties that bind them and the behaviour that drives them apart. Amongst the pain and sadness there is humour – particularly when certain people get their deserved comeuppance – but I felt the lack of the great comic set-pieces of ‘The Corrections’. There is an obsession amongst some male American authors (and critics) about ‘the great American novel’ and ‘Freedom’ certainly seems to be aiming for this territory. It’s an impressive book but my suspicion is that it is Franzen’s earlier work that will truly stand the test of time.



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