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