Monday, 30 January 2012

Freedom: Jonathan Franzen

Freedom is a highly political book - not that Franzen's other books aren’t - but this is very obviously a ‘state of America today’ family fable - as the Time reviewer puts it 'he shows us how we are'.  Which I find quite pretentious, because  - shouldn't every contemporary novel reflect how we are in some way or other?  What's so special about this one? I want to ask.  And I don't just want to be instructed or admonished, I want to be entertained, moved, shaken out of my socks with sheer joy.

The novel is centred around an American family - not necessarily typical.  Patty is the daughter of a New York politician and her successful businessman husband.  They have four children - all expected to be high achievers.  Patty is a sports star but, curiously, her parents aren’t interested in her or her achievements at all, so caught up in their own lives they don’t even have time to watch her play.  When Patty is raped in high school by a prominent citizen’s son,  their response is all about damage limitation rather than her emotional well-being.

When an accident cuts short her career while she’s still at college she marries - not the rock musician she lusts after - but his best friend - the caring, altruistic, save-the-planet, law student Walter, who idolises her.

Things work out as badly as you might expect.  Their children grow up as screwed up as their parents, and the marriage gradually unravels, against a background of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Haliburton, and skulduggery in high (and low) places.

Walter heads a conservation project that’s a front for coal mining and mineral extraction, and his son Joey gets involved in a dodgy, but lucrative, project selling vehicles to the military for use in Iraq.

The funniest scene in the book is when Joey, who has made a crazy secret teenage marriage, accidentally swallows his wedding ring just as he’s about to embark on a weekend of guilt-ridden adultery, and has to extract the ring from his turds in a hotel bathroom - it brings a whole new meaning to the expression ‘a dirty weekend’!

The style of the book didn’t appeal to me though - it’s narrated in a very old fashioned 'told story' way - and I was sometimes bored by the long political conversations that the characters have with each other - but this is Jonathan Franzen.  He writes compellingly and his characters are always fascinating and three dimensional.

The story is told, like The Corrections, from the point of view of each character in turn, but unlike The Corrections, the voices are not really distinct from each other, but told by the impersonal narrative voice I found frustrating because it distanced me from the people I was reading about and whose heads I was supposed to be in.

But it is compelling and I read to the end (though I skipped through some of the conversations).  I’m afraid I didn’t believe the ‘happy-ever-after’ ending, but that probably has to do with the fact that the plot echoes episodes in my own personal history.  I empathised with battery-chicken Patty, whose legs and wings atrophy as she tries to make her marriage work, and I cheered her on when she finally grasped freedom.  But at the end of the book I was shouting ‘don’t do it’, with all the wisdom of experience.

This novel isn’t JF's best book, but it’s still seriously good.  Incidentally,  Jonathan Franzen’s controversial ideas about the E-book were aired on Norman Geras’ blog today.  Interesting, considering the fact that I read the book on my Kindle!

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