Well I finished the BIG BOOK--finally. No insult to Franzen, it is just I am a slow reader of fiction and FREEDOM is a big book and so it took me...two months! Wow. But the BIG BOOK deserves big time and I am very glad I put the time into Franzen's opus after having written on my early struggles with the book (see Falling off the Freedom Train). But to the book. The very large story of the very liberal family the Berglunds. Coming from a very large liberal family myself I certainly recognized the characters and their Correctionseqe adventures in the United States in the late twentieth and early twenty first century. Their resolution echoed The Corrections in it's powerful build and fall and then became Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night with its' final send off the main character Dick who was "ended up in this town or that."
The structure was curious. Patty's journal was wet mud on the normally bracing Franzen prose. Of course again my touchstone is The Corrections. I confess to not minding the New Yorker style of writing of information upon information given in rapid fire urban hauteur cuisine but that all went away the minute Patty dug in with her life story. Not uninteresting mind you and the Big Book certainly gives the author the license to do just about anything and get away with it under the canvas of the big picture but certainly like the old movie the The Bridge over the River Qai one wonders if the construction wasn't worthy of the train. And what was that train?
Well lets throw out the title. Bad title. I know bad titles and you don't name a book for a theme. A bit like hitting someone over the head with a mallet. You know what this book is about FREEDOM! We don't name our books LOVE DESTINY IRONY SLAVERY LIBERTY. The title does not do the book justice. I have read the reviews in the NY Times and the Atlantic and neither of them seemed on the mark. The book is not about FREEDOM. It is not about what FREEDOM has done to the country. It is a statement on the last thirty years maybe. A snapshot of certain parts of American society in the seventies eighties nineties and I certainly will not take from the book it's import in making a statement. It did. A good statement, and what that is I will give to the reader. But on the bottom of all that statement is a love story.
Whoops. How pedantic. Maybe, but while the book soars in parts with the overall throw of the Berglunds and all their chilluns and their convolutions--at the very bottom is Walter and Patty. Sorry. I do believe the book encompasses much of our world and says a great many things about a great many moments but without the title (remember we took it away) NO FREEDOM...the book becomes more of a movement than a statement. What more is there than the love story that consumes the book from beginning to end? It is not about the birds, Joey's foray into selling bad truck parts, Walters foray into population control, Katzs foray into music, Patty's foray into...what? Sports. Depression. Motherhood. It is not about how liberal families empower their children to become monsters. They do. It is about this very liberal family coming apart under the pressure of good old American capitalism and eroding social values. But if we take away the very large title of FREEDOM. What do you have? You have Patty and Walter.
Not a bad thing. Fitzgerald wrote a love story in Tender is the Night in Dick Diver and Nicole and this too was about the dissolution of a couple and their while maybe not liberal tendencies maybe renaissance ex patriot too rich for their britches lifestyle. But the dissolution of Walter Berglund echoes Dick Diver right down to the stripping away of belief in this world and the final line where Dick returns to the Midwest and is to be found in some little town. Walter shares a similar fate in his lake reatreat but then does return to New York in a sort of lost return to his old life, leaving his home as a bird sanctuary for his girfriend whom is given love of his life status though we never feel it....her death is covered in one paragraph and that is that.
So what do we have here in the BIG BOOK. I appreciate the book because it is big and Franzen took a shot at the big prize. I dont' think he hit it. No cheap praise here but of course but The Corrections was better because it did capture a moment in time and knocked it to the floor for all to see--the final showdown of the nuclear Midwestern family of the late twentieth century the American Century and we shall not see it's kind again. That is the power of The Corrections--stumbling into the great American modality of the bourgeoisie and it's doom. Wow. Great title by the way. But FREEDOM is no CORRECTIONS.
Saying all that. I am a Franzen fan top to bottom. Love his essays. Love his books. That doesn't mean he has to hit it out of the park every time. I enjoy even the grounders.
William Hazelgrove's latest novel Rocket Man due out Januray 2011.