When I set about writing this - my first recommendation for the blog - I couldn’t think what to write about. I thought I’d write one for the Literature category because James doesn’t get to read as much as he’d like and so the book recommendations will largely fall to me. This started a long twenty minutes of me staring at my bookshelves pondering which bloody novel I should write about. In the end, I got fed up and just closed my eyes and grabbed the first one I felt … unfortunately, I hadn’t actually read the one I picked, so I gently placed it to one side and blindly plucked again with all the grace of a fairground grabber machine. What I found in my hand was the blazingly good Freedom by Jonathan Franzen … about as good as I could hope for really. So, without further ado, here’s why you should all go and read Freedom.
Technically, that first paragraph is a preface to the article, however I need to include another. I used to despise Jonathan Franzen, in much the same way I still despise Will Self. I found him an arrogant, abrasive dick, who thought he was the second coming of Hemingway when in fact he was a tiny little wannabe intellectual who was no more talented than a Yorkshire Terrier … and then I read Freedom and realised that he is one of the most gifted writers alive today. He’s still a dick, but like Salman Rushdie, he can pull it off because he’s so damn talented.
Freedom was first released in 2010 to absolutely rapturous reviews (The Independent said ‘Deeper, funnier, sadder and truer than a work of fiction has any right to be.’) and along with his earlier novel The Corrections is considered a cornerstone of modern American literature. In a lesser writer’s hands, both novels would have been boring, soap-opera snooze fests, but his sheer talent elevated them to greatness. His writing style, for example, almost belies his gift. Whereas the previously mentioned Salman Rushdie dazzles with prose so poetic and stream-like that you can’t help but read passages out to friends, family, and ‘randoms’ on the train; Franzen’s prose is much more basic. George Orwell always advocated writing simply as it was the best way to get the point across and Franzen runs with that. It’s still gorgeous, don’t get me wrong, but it works in a different way than Rushdie. With the right combination of words Franzen has you eating out of his hand as you choke back a tear of sadness … or often a tear of laughter. When what is being said is so cutting and able to move you in places so deep within you that you didn’t know they existed, it doesn’t matter how it’s being said.
You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.”
So, what’s it about? Freedom, essentially. Franzen’s last three novels have all been similarly titled: one word that sums up the entire theme. First was The Corrections, then Freedom, and finally Purity. By doing this, he signposts what the book is about and then every paragraph has the theme threading its way through it like a beacon of energy leading to the beautiful denouement. Freedom explores what freedom means by following the fortunes and torrential relationships within a single family: the Berglunds. This family is a seething mess of love, hate, and fractured dreams … The novel explores freedom away from your own family; sexual freedom; the freedom of first love; the freedom of youth; the freedom of money; the freedom of birds in national parks (yes, really); the freedom of death; and so on. With one little word, Franzen is able to burrow his way within the fabric of society and show us who we are and what we think we want. I can’t tell you too much about the plot of the novel because there are so many gut-wrenching moments that to even hint at the contents within would be to deprive you of the joy of following this family through ups and downs that will make you glad that your own clan just sit on the sofa eating pizza and watching Love Island.
‘The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.’
Whilst the plot is good and the writing is crafted to near perfection, what really stands out is the characterisation. In my opinion, Franzen is the best writer I have ever read when it comes to characterisation. The whole novel depends on its five main characters feeling genuine and real. Without this, the novel would drag and the interest of the reader would wane. They are so integral to the plot that you start to gain a connection to each one and even if they are doing something despicable, you feel you understand why and you still sympathise … much as if they were a part of your own family: whether it’s Patty lamenting a wasted youth or her husband Walter wishing he was closer to his obsessive wife; whether it’s watching the spoilt son Joey stumble and make mistake after mistake or watching his sister Jessica grow colder to those around her with every passing year. It’s often a cliché to say that characters in a book ‘come alive’ or ‘feel like real people’, but in the case of Freedom, I find that they really do. This sentiment is summed up best by Sam Mendes who wrote in the Observer that the novel was ‘moving, funny and unexpectedly beautiful. I missed it when it was over.’ It wasn’t the novel he missed, it was the people he’d grown to care about.
‘But nothing disturbs the feeling of specialness like the presence of other human beings feeling identically special.’
It’s an epic, Victorian family drama at its heart, just with a twenty-first century coating; and what I find most amazing is his ability to keep up laughing, crying, and most importantly engrossed for the whole 600 pages. I’m a bad reader of long novels. Once the page count starts to tip over the 400-page marker, I’m usually thinking about Googling the end and moving onto something more succinct. I usually find authors that go on for hundreds and hundreds of pages are undisciplined and can’t edit their own work. Most novels aren’t justified in their length and could tend to be edited down (Stephen King, I’m looking at you). Freedom is one of the novels that shouldn’t be page longer or a page shorter than it is … In my opinion (and many other’s): It’s a close to perfect as a novel can be.
And I’ll end on a quote by Sarah Sands for the Evening Standard: ‘Both a page-turner and a work of art … an almost perfectly written novel’.