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28th October
2010
written by Steph

Free at last!

If book reviews here have slowed down of late, you can attribute it to this beast of a book. Normally I can polish off a book in two or three days, but with Freedom: 12 days. Granted, life has been busy, so it’s not like I had tons of time to sit down and read, but still, this sucker is big and it takes a while to wade through its 575+ pages.

Although this is the first Franzen I’m officially reviewing here on the site, it’s not the first time I’m mentioning the man. Whenever I read a book about dysfunctional families, I’m likely to mention how great I thought The Corrections was, such that I’m sure most of you are like, “ALL RIGHT! I get it! You love The Corrections and I should probably read it! Enough already!” So what I’m trying to say is that I’m no Franzen newbie, and I was interested to see how I’d respond to his follow-up to what is apparently one of my literary touchstones. I’d skimmed several reviews before picking up my copy, not absorbing enough to spoil my own reading experience, but gleaning enough to see that the book was rather polarizing: either people LOVED it more than The Corrections or people did not like it at all.

I know how much you all love it when I write an opinionated review (generally negative, am I right?), so it pains me that I fall into neither the love it nor the hate it camp! I mean, I’m glad I didn’t hate the book, but I’m sad that I can’t say that I loved it, and I certainly can’t say that I loved it more than The Corrections. I definitely thought Freedom was a thoughtful and thought-provoking read and it felt very “Franzen-esque” to me, but at the end, even if I think it was a very good book, it really just felt like, well, a book. Let me explain what I mean by this: there are certain books that I read that provide for transcendental reading experiences. The narrative spell is so strong, so salient that I forget that I’m engaged in the act of reading… instead it’s simply a moment of unalloyed experience. I am not aware of turning the pages or absorbing words, I am in a semi-conscious state that reading has transported me to. To give you an example of books that have done this for me, here are some titles that have given me this ultimate pleasure: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Then We Came to the End, Jane Eyre, Disgrace, anything by Tana French… this is the experience I long for when I read. To me a really good book is more than just words written on paper, it provides a very definite (if intangible and difficult-to-describe) experience… these books are more than just books for me, they are more than concrete plots, characters or ideas. They are expansive and have their own pulse, their own soul. They are experiences.

Simply put, Freedom just wasn’t one of these books for me. I was always grounded in reality as I read, and even though parts of it were very good, they never ascended to that higher level of reading experiences that my very favorite books do. There were moments when reading The Corrections where I really felt like Franzen was tapping into something visceral and true about human beings and modern society, but with Freedom, as interesting and well-drawn as his characters were, they felt like characters, they felt like they were standing in to push particular themes, messages, or agendas. They didn’t feel like real people that I knew or could know, they were very much creations of the author.

That said, I do think that Franzen is at his very best when his is focusing on his characters. To me, those are the moments when he is most insightful and honest as an author… So much of Freedom was consumed by issues: population control, politics, family dynamics, environmental conservation, war… I’m not saying that these things can’t be elements of a good novel, but it is a lot and things did seem like they were getting a bit unwieldy. And yes, I’ll say that the middle of the book that many have complained about being “slow” or a “drag” does become a bit of a mess, largely because it feels like Franzen is getting sidetracked away from his characters and focusing to much on educating us on the issues. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I don’t read fiction in order to be informed about the real world (I’ve said before that I think fiction can teach us a lot), but this was a bit overboard and seemed as though Franzen sometimes forgot how the issues tied into the message of his book and instead just talked about them bluntly so that they became the message. And the book isn’t called “Mountain Top Removal of Coal is Bad” or “Democrats and Liberals view the world differently and don’t get along”, so maybe Franzen didn’t need to be so obvious in his discussion of these things and could have instead focused on how they contribute to the discussion of freedom.

Now how Franzen approaches and analyzes the notion of freedom was something I very much liked and thought was very clever. It’s a tricky little concept in the end, and what I often found (and perhaps this should have been expected given Franzen’s love of irony) is that freedom is antithetical. Throughout the book characters discover that sometimes the things they run from, the things they think are holding them back and preventing them from self-actualizing, these are actually the things they need or want in the end. There’s never really an escape and sometimes getting what you want is the very worst thing, that boundaries and rules are not necessarily bad, that they don’t necessarily make us “unfree”. Or maybe freedom, as much as we long for it, is not really want in the end, that freedom and happiness are not necessarily synonymous or interdependent; one does not need to be free in order to be happy. In a time when people are so intent on maximizing their personal freedoms, there is a failure to truly grasp what the consequences of such liberties on a grand scale truly are, and that the pursuit of freedom may merely be a ruse for chasing selfish desires or shirking responsibilities. It’s an interesting quandary, and I think that Franzen explores it through a variety of facets in the book, and the moments where the token issue and the narrative coalesced to illuminate the sticky quality of freedom were truly beautiful and impressive.

But like the central marriage examined in the book, things get a little lost on the way, so while the beginning and the end of the book are very strong, they don’t in my mind quite make up for the muddled middle. Some people have said they thought the ending was so brilliant that it obfuscated any previous flaws, but for me, I thought the ending was solid and conceptually made sense, but I also don’t see how else the book could have concluded other than how it does. I think Franzen could have taken a more direct, better edited path to get there, but I thought the ending was satisfying and appropriate, though not something that had me going wild with passion or anything like that.

Freedom is a good book, but I’m not sure it’s more than that, nor do I necessarily think it needs to be. For all the ballyhoo about boring tangents in the middle, I can’t actually say I was every bored with the book. I never skimmed because Franzen is sufficiently talented that he can take a topic I don’t care much about and make it compelling or at least make it seem like it’s worth spending my time on. It’s a book that’s very easy to dive into (as opposed to The Corrections, which I think takes a good 40 pages or so to warm up), so it’s a shame that things bloat in the middle. In an odd way I almost feel like the book wasn’t really finished when Franzen submitted it, that it could have used a bit more time maturing and being trimmed of its kinks and fat. There were certainly times when I liked reading Freedom very much, but ultimately it really just made me eager to go back and re-read its precursor. All in all, I’m happy I read it, but it wasn’t life-changing.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

19 Comments

  1. 10/28/2010

    Your feelings are just what Ihad with Wolf Hall. I did finish it but it was a chore.

  2. mee
    10/28/2010

    Ohh too bad it didn’t rock your world, as I know you’d been excited by it for a while. I hope to read The Corrections one of these days. If you’re interested, First Tuesday book club will discuss Freedom next month. Very good Australian book show if you haven’t tried it (you can watch it online or download the v-podcasts). I really look forward to that episode!

  3. 10/29/2010

    I almost bought this the first week it came out, and for some reason, I hesitated and left without it. A lot of what I have read about it definitely makes me think that the book has a lot of messages, and it sounds like at times, they are preached rather heavily. I also don’t know if any of Franzen’s work will ever live up to The Corrections in my opinion, but that really doesn’t stop me from wanting to read this book. When I was reading the jacket flap, I got the feeling that this book was actually a lot like The Corrections, in that it dealt with a dysfunctional family and the dramas that they get themselves involved in, but after reading your review, I am going to conclude that this is a very different book. I think I am going to pick this one up the next time I get a chance. I think it would be interesting to compare and contrast it to The Corrections. Thanks for sharing your thoughtful analysis on this one, Steph!

  4. 10/29/2010

    Okay, now I really need to finish it so we can have a podcast!!

  5. 10/29/2010

    It’s strange how Freedom was such a big deal in the media, but not often reviewed in the book blogsphere. I didn’t even know what it was about until now (it’s about a lot of things, it seems). I don’t think its really my cup of tea.

    Thank you for that description of what it’s like to read a book that feels like a book. EXACTLY!! I felt it several times, but was never able to pin point it as well as you did (someone said somewhere that the internet was invented so that we could say “Me too!” very often :)).

  6. 10/29/2010

    @ Mystica: I know many people rave about Wolf Hall, but I don’t tend to love historical fiction so it’s not one I’m running out to read any time soon… I fear it will be one that’s a struggle for me to get through.
     
    @ mee: I don’t really feel like Freedom let me down, so I still feel ok that I was excited to read it. I do think that it has perhaps been overhyped by literary critics, and all of the “OMG! JFranz is a genius” stuff is perhaps a bit much in my opinion.
    I’ll definitely need to check out the First Tuesday Book Club – never heard of it, but it sounds fun! I think it will be interesting to see how those outside of American culture view the book.
     
    @ zibilee: I think that if you enjoyed The Corrections than this would certainly be an interesting reading experience for you. It has a lot of really good moments, but I can certainly say that it’s not trying to do the same thing as The Corrections and that is certainly one good thing about it. It certainly looks at family dynamics, but the scope and impetus for the book feel very different.
     
    @ Eliza: Yes, please do! I would love to try to articulate these nebulous thoughts in real time… ;)
     
    @ Alex: Yes, it is interesting that most book bloggers seem to have passed this book by! I really wonder why that is.
    Talking about what separate a great book from good book is such a hard thing, so I’m glad you got what I’m saying. How does one describe a subjective experience in a universal manner? I’m not sure I even did my “transcendental reading experience” notion justice, but if it spoke to you, I’m happy! :D

  7. 10/30/2010

    It sounds like you and I had very similar responses to this one Steph!

  8. 10/30/2010

    I have a copy of this only because I was too slow in putting my Indiespensible order on hold. I don’ think I would’ve bought it, otherwise. But I have it, so someday I’ll read it. It’s not really screaming my name, though.

  9. 11/01/2010

    @ Karen: Yes, I think we did feel very similarly about this one. I don’t regret reading it, but it was by no means perfect!
     
    @ softdrink: I could see how this one wouldn’t really be your cup of tea. I do like that Indiespensible has the opportunity to expose us to books we might otherwise not read, though!

  10. 11/02/2010

    I have The Corrections, but I haven’t made the leap to Freedom yet. I figured I would read what I had first to see if I liked it, and it looks like that was the best choice for me. I completely agree with you on the definition of a great book and it sounds like this won’t do it for me either!

  11. 11/03/2010

    @ Meghan: If you already have The Corrections, I think you’d be wise to read that first! While Freedom isn’t the same by any means, if you don’t like Franzen in The Corrections, you probably won’t like Freedom much either!

  12. 11/03/2010

    I remember really enjoying The Corrections when I read it some years ago. Considering the hype, I was expecting it to be a difficult read but I just swam through it. So I’m excited about Freedom but, like everyone else, probably have too high an expectation (if that makes sense). I don’t think I have time to read it this year, but I’m still looking forward to reading it. Then I’ll come back and compare notes:)

  13. 11/05/2010

    @ sakura: I completely understand having elevated expectations for Freedom – I think when an author takes so long to publish between books, hype can’t help but build! Even though I still prefer The Corrections, I’m not sad that I read Freedom! I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it when you do get around to reading it!

  14. 11/08/2010

    I don’t know about his writing…I haven’t read any Frantzen at all, but I loveeee what you have to say about really good books providing a transcendental experience.

    It’s rare when that happens, but oh, so good!

  15. 11/10/2010

    @ Nishita: Yes, that elusive transcendental reading experience… it’s why I read! As you say, it happens all to rarely, but it’s those moments that make the slog through bad books worthwhile!

  16. Lu
    11/25/2010

    I just finished this one and I did indeed love it, though I have to agree that there were moments when it could have been more focused on the characters. I’m looking forward to reading The Corrections, since you say it’s even better.

  17. [...] reviewed by: Caribousmom, Lous_pages, Steph & Tony Investigate, 1000 Books with Quotes, Tales from the Reading Room,  Feminist Texican [Reads], The New Dork [...]

  18. 11/30/2010

    @ Lu: Off to read your review right now! I think this is a great way to introduce readers to Franzen as it gives you a great sense of what he’s like as an author, but I do still think The Corrections is his book to beat.

  19. [...] “I’m glad I didn’t hate the book, but I’m sad that I can’t say that I loved it, and I certainly can’t say that I loved it more than The Corrections. I definitely thought Freedom was a thoughtful and thought-provoking read and it felt very ‘Franzen-esque’ to me, but at the end, even if I think it was a very good book, it really just felt like, well, a book.” Steph & Tony Investigate [...]

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