I promise I bought this book before Oprah picked it. Really. That said, I commend her for a fine choice for one of her final books. And I’m glad Rod picked it for Book Club this month. I thought “Freedom” was a brilliant book that will one day wind up on the high school and college reading lists of kids everywhere.
Jonathan Franzen is our country’s star author right now. If he had written a new programming manual for a Betamax movie player, it would be on the top of the bestseller list because the elite literary circles swoon over him. That might lead some to think he is overrated. I don’t think so. Franzen has talent. He may not be able to write as eloquently as some, but he certainly has a knack for writing a compelling modern literature.
I think that is why I found the book to be readable. His characters could easily be a neighbor or a colleague (or oneself). The language they used, the concerns they had, their selfishness—all of it seemed very much of the previous decade. Which I believe is Franzen’s point. His book is a Norman Rockwell portrait of Americans in the first decade of the century. Everything in the book seemed perfectly realistic. Here’s the catch: like those mirrors in a hotel that are for shaving and makeup application, you don’t really want to look. The pores are too big and the flaws are frighteningly large.
There are probably a few ways to analyze this book, and I’m looking forward to a spirited discussion this evening about it. As for the title, it popped up in numerous places throughout the book—characters seeking their own freedom, references to Bush’s “freedom agenda,” and even allusions to the freedom sought by the birds that Walter and Lalitha struggled to protect. To me, it was also a reference to the generic freedom that Americans are always waxing poetically about. If you step back, the book was a bit of an ugly look at how poorly behaved society is today. The title was a way of saying: “Here’s a lens on that freedom that America has; look what we did with it!” The result isn’t always pretty.
I actually liked Richard quite a bit. Richard is Walter Berglund’s best friend. He is also the path not taken by Walter’s wife, Patty. Richard seemed to be the most self-aware and I figured him as the guy who will freely admit he is an asshole. I really was impressed at the scene Franzen created for Richard when he decides to try to steal some starstruck kid’s girlfriend. It perfectly embodied Richard—he gives an interview containing relatively serious political commentary but the whole reason he is doing it is to get laid and to steal the kid’s girlfriend. And then, he gets bored and decides to flirt with his best friend Walter’s new intern. Not much to like, I guess, but he was a pretty fascinating (and familiar) character.
Patty was more difficult to like. To me, she was a modern take on a Stepford wife. Patty’s problem was that she made a decision in her life and then spent the rest of her life second-guessing that decision. Her husband Walter (someone call William H. Macy for the film version, please) was a simpering and insecure adult. He was headed for a midlife crisis the moment we met him and indeed that is what happens.
As I reflect on the plot, it wasn’t all that unpredictable. But the achievement here is that Franzen takes a familiar plot line, keeps it interesting for readers, and astutely reflects the period of time in which it happens.
I have no qualms recommending this to someone. And while it sounds cliché, it is a perfect book club book. I have a feeling I’m going to like the book a lot more after a discussion and after hearing what others felt about the characters and Franzen’s portrait of America.