I am generally not sucked in by hype. I have no great need to see the latest movies as soon as they premier or view all the films nominated for best picture. I don’t have to read the hottest book on the market, right away, so I can talk about it, appearing “with it” to those into the latest books (particularly a book that our dear leader, Prince Fluffy Bunny, selected as something to read). Nonetheless, I was intrigued by the subject title—how freedom would be treated—and in recognition that Franzen has built a celebrated reputation in literary circles, I got into the queue at the public library, some 260 down on the list, and waited.
It was worth the wait…sort of.
The New York Times book review of August 19, 2010 called it “a masterpiece of American fiction.” the Los Angeles Times book review of August 20, 2010 called it a “rich and nuanced novel.” And the Guardian-Observer book review of September 19, 2010 said it’s “funny and poignant” adding a cautionary note that it’s “only trouble is the weight of expectation it carries” due to Franzen’s prior success in 2001 with Corrections. (In contrast, there are a lot of negative reviews at amazon.com.) I enjoyed the book—it was difficult to put down. Its weird characters and their trials will be with me for a long time. But therein lies the problem: While Franzen uses a lot of big words (a sign that he’s “literary”?), and the interesting device of having one of the main characters use “autobiography” to carry the story, everyone in the book is dysfunctional. There doesn’t seem to be a normal person in it. I know there are those that would like these characters because of their sexual proclivities and their drug use (Charlie Sheen comes to mind). I was left with an empty feeling about them.
My publisher had a comment in an e-mail in reference to my novel, (which I’m editing again) that I’ll quote—and we weren’t even discussing Freedom: “…there’s a reason why there’s so much out-ethics and angst-ridden crap these days in novels….that’s what the buying public is picking up (but I wonder if it’s just b/c that’s what they’re fed.) I believe that there are enough decent people out there who want to read decent literature, that I say carry on! ” Yes, “angst-ridden crap” is a pretty good description.
And how was freedom dealt with? If you’re one of those—liberal, leftist, conservative, or reactionary, it matters not which—that think the world simply must be organized into a moral structure that satisfies your utopian impulses, then freedom is something that must be restrained. As if to say,”We can’t have too many people actually doing what they want and living like they want, now can we? These freedom lovers have it too good—must reign them in to the new rules, organized by philosopher kings of our choosing.” So, if this is your basic assumption, there is plenty in the book that will support it—we have too much freedom, which apparently kills a lot of birds.
On the other hand, if you are one who sees freedom as mainly about sex, then there is plenty in the book to suggest that freedom is good, which is to say that there is a lot of screwing going on; and even more thinking about screwing. The author does, however, suggest that there are some pesky consequences…because, you know…people have feelings about such things.
Franzen never quite says so, but the freedom bit seems to be presented as a problem to be solved and the social forces for “good” need to solve it. By what, he doesn’t say, but he does leave the impression that it must be solved (and we know who he thinks the social forces for good are). In my view, if it’s a problem, it’s a problem of an individual choosing how one shall live their life. Freedom is like arriving at a complex intersection that you have to navigate your way through knowing full well that you might take a wrong path, but you make your choices to the best of your ability and live (or die) with the consequences. You may have to backtrack and try a different path, if you’re able. Not everybody does this well, all the time—a decent balance of good decisions and minor mistakes is the best most of us can achieve. That’s not a problem; it’s an opportunity to learn who you are.
To close, what follows is a poem by Anthony Madrid, who “has written a paradox, calls it the paradox of the leash. To solve it, you have to establish who’s at the freer end of the strap.” Is this what Franzen is saying? Life is a bitch because of freedom?
I Have Passed Too Many Years Among Cool
I have passed too many years among cool, designing beings.
I have contracted their reptile manner in my soul.
Last night I lay awake, judging the earth and all its creatures.
My dozen angry blood cells were frowning in the jury box.
Having nothing to say, I said nothing a long time. But now,
Humiliated anger presses me cruelly …
I sketch a human hand: I leave the outline open-ended. Then I close off
That open wrist—for I’m not here to draw but to quarter.
These worthless males! For them, the value of any sex act
Is measured by the market price of the photographic evidence.—
And these worthless females! Their religion is needlessly esoteric,
And their Upper Realm is peopled by disreputable gods.