Mosaic / Reviews / October 6, 2010


It seemed right that Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Freedom,” came at the end of summer. The book (like Franzen) repudiates the notion of a novel as a quick beach read to breeze through in a weekend, the content of which never breaks the surface. Acute detail and care pervades the whole novel—always necessary to the story.

And yet, the novel and Franzen came to dominate my literary amusements this summer. After the deliberations that come each year in choosing the first book of summer reading, I settled on “How to Be Alone,” a collection of essays (many previously published) by Franzen from 2002. I took pleasure in submitting myself to Franzen as he espoused his literary ideals, guided me through the inner workings of the Chicago USPS system, and reviewed, with irony and wit, the most recent sex-help books.

When I happened to acquire an advanced copy of “Freedom” — it was news to me he had written a new novel, not to mention that it would be released in two months — I did not intend to read it. I had read his previous novel, “The Corrections” (2001), winner of the National Book Award, but I enjoyed his essays more by far. However, I soon wanted so much to re-immerse myself in Franzen’s writing that I picked “Freedom” and began reading.

“Freedom” is not an easy read. I say this not for an overabundance of elevated metaphors and esoteric language; in that light, “Freedom” is quite manageable. Rather, “Freedom” fully rests on its characters and the reader’s connections with, or, at the very least, sympathies for each one. The first hundred or even 200 pages I read interested me but did not enthrall me, but this investment eventually paid off. To spend so much time with the characters and to revisit interactions anew with a different perspective only deepens the connections constructed between them and the reader. Even the first of two first-person “autobiographical” sections in the novel I disliked, and looked forward to returning to the narrator. However, I later realized that in reading the first autobiographical section so early, I did not truly understand the character-writer or the composition’s importance in the story. “Freedom,” rather than being a work of instant-gratification, improves as the reader slowly comes to understand the greater story unfolding.

As an examination of our particular time and socio-political climate, “Freedom” presents a novel of great ambition and success. Throughout the novel, issues of environmentalism are examined from multiple perspectives and activism attempted through varying avenues. In fact, last week’s visiting environmental lecturer returned my mind to the struggles and debates with which the characters in “Freedom” involve themselves.

Most simply, however, in a subtle and powerful manner, Franzen exposes the many ways in which ‘freedom’ pervades our society, how it can be a right, a challenge, an excuse, a way of life and more. For a word so short, so common, Franzen forces readers to confront its complex nature.

I finished “Freedom” in Panera Bread, tears brimming in my eyes, unable to fully function in the real world for several minutes.

This personal experience with “Freedom,” an unexpected gem in my Franzen-filled summer, was soon taken over by the pre-publication frenzy that grew ever larger. The New York Times Book Review featured a long and praising review and TIME went farther, placing Franzen’s face on its cover with the title “Great American Novelist.” Soon the coverage itself became a topic of debate – did literary reviews favor male authors and dismiss women’s works as mere “chick lit”? Can one enjoy the book following all the hype? The reviewer for NPR said yes, despite efforts to dislike it. At a movie theatre in Peoria, a middle-aged couple sat discussing the book, wondering when it would be released, and I couldn’t help but turn around and profess its greatness (I had just left Panera). The President even had a copy! And yes, Oprah selected “Freedom” to be her next Book Club selection (Franzen and Oprah have a complicated history, which I can’t get into here).

I realize that I have yet to give a true synopsis. I apologize, but I dislike reading the backs of books. If that’s what you want, there’s a copy of “Freedom” in the library.

Helen Schnoes

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