Friday, January 21, 2011

Revolutionary Road Cornered the Market on Middle-class Angst First: Review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom

At the start of the week, I posted about Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road. Well, there's a reason for that. The next book in my reading queue was Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, which last August was heralded as something of a literary landmark. It was Oprah-fied after being out in hardcover for only about two weeks--evidence, perhaps, of what readers expected from it.

I'll say this: Freedom is a good book. But I hardly feel that Mr. Franzen's novel is the monumental, literary event that reviewers and the media led us to expect.

At its best, Freedom is a considered examination of what happens to the deferment of the middle-class's ambitions, as well as a somewhat Marxist rendering of how the social elites employ their resources to misguide concerned citizens into doing their will--a prime example being Walter Berglund's work for the coal industry under the guise of saving the cerulean warbler.

At its worst, however, Freedom is a weighty repetition of the half-hearted, inert political complaints that my generation has often heard from our parents--those complaints from liberals that the world needs to be better, without doing much about it. There are also frequent pages of dialogue exchange--about various plans and schemes, for one reform or another--that could perhaps be more effectively condensed into exposition.

As these discussions also lead to many arguments, I'd also like to ask Mr. Franzen to turn off the caps lock in future books. Thanks.

In Salon, Laura Miller described Freedom as "[r]emarkable and possibly unprecedented: a merciless satirical look at contemporary life that's also fundamentally generous and human." The novel does find compassion enough in criticizing the crumbling family life of the Walter and Patty Berglund in the present; of the ambitions of Walter (social reform), Patty (her college basketball career), and their friend Richard Katz (a professional musician, who does roofing on the side); and the complicated lives of their children.

But in doing so, Mr. Franzen borrows, perhaps too heavily, from Tolstoy (he makes a point of having Patty Berglund reading War and Peace) in order to give the book an epic scope that this reader, at least, is not certain the book has earned.

And despite Mr. Franzen's largely effective efforts at capturing the mood of a generation, some things feel off; for instance, much time is devoted to explaining Richard Katz, the politics of his music, and the meanings of his sound--and yet there's no reference to punk music, not even a negative comment. Furthermore, Ms. Miller's claim about the novel's originality seems a bit off, especially when we consider that Mr. Franzen's approach to middle-class life is hardly new; in the marital struggle between the Berglunds and their affairs with secondary characters, Franzen recreates many of the ideological and social pressures that Richard Yates explores with Frank and April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road.

Freedom, overall, is a good book--but not the monumental novel that paves the course of 21st-century literature. If anything, in this novel I found a somewhat ballooned return to the central conflicts of mid-20th-century novels like Revolutionary Road.


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