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Impressions of Freedom

I don’t usually write about a book immediately after finishing it. I tend to let my thoughts on it marinate for at least a few hours, if not a few days, before setting down my thoughts. For some reason today, though, I am inclined to jot down a few things about Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom right away, having only finished it a few minutes ago. [I should note that I “read” Freedom by listening to an Audible recording. More on the audiobook experience later. For the sake of my own sanity, I’m going to go ahead and refer to this as reading.]

Freedom, of course, garnered a great deal of attention upon being published, from being decried as evidence of misogyny in publishing to being added to Oprah’s famous Book Club list (which was recently accused of a sort of literary misogyny of its own by the folks at Beatrice.com). Without any real background knowledge of what Freedom was about, and without having read Franzen’s first literary smash The Corrections, I responded on this site to Lionel Shriver's and Jodi Picoult’s crying foul over the media hullaballoo surrounding Franzen’s latest.

Now that I’ve actually read Freedom, I remain unconvinced that the hype around the book had anything to do with gender, but I do feel that the praise has been a bit overblown. Franzen is undoubtedly a writer who has honed his craft. His characters feel genuine, and he expertly weaves the reader through the lives and psyches of a great many of the characters, without the complication of giving each of them his or her own narrative voice. 

Freedom is primarily narrated from a third person limited perspective, but that limitation jumps from character to character, giving the reader a unique look into the interior of each character. The exception to this rule is Patty Berglund, whose story is told in the form of an autobiography; the autobiography, however, is written in the third person—which, for me, added some unneeded complication to the narrative style of the novel as a whole. Toward the novel’s end, a plot point comes clear which makes Franzen’s presentation of Patty’s story as an autobiography make a bit more sense, but I felt that this plot point was minor and that the autobiography of Patty Berglund was an impressive but ultimately unnecessary flourish on Franzen’s part.

I leave Freedom with a couple of lingering questions, which ordinarily would have been the sort to keep me chewing on the book for a while before writing about it. Hopefully in the next few days I’ll have some revelations, because I still feel largely unresolved on Freedom. First of all, I’m unsure about the characters, the Berglund family and those close to them. They felt real. They were well-written and rounded characters. They each had their own triumphs and struggles, from which they learned and changed. Still, I’m not sure I care too much about them. (It could be, though, that I just don’t care much for them.) 

At a slightly more zoomed-out level, I wonder, about the title, Freedom. It’s less a “why” question than a “what sort” question. To what sort of freedom is Franzen referring? Is it “freedom from…” or “freedom to…”? Or can the two even be separated? I’m not sure I feel that the characters ever had much freedom, and perhaps that’s where my question was born.

What’s perhaps most frustrating to me about these lingering questions is that I’m not sure that Franzen really intended for me to have the answers. I’m not sure he meant for me to know whether or how much I cared for or about his characters, or that he meant for me to feel they were free or know what sort of freedom they were after. And it feels like, somehow, this was another little flourish, another literary trick that Franzen is playing on me; and I’m afraid that I won’t quite be free of this novel or these thoughts for a little while yet.

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