25 November 2014

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010.

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010.

Someone, once upon a time, will have written the great American novel. Freedom is Franzen’s bid, and Freedom isn’t the great American novel. Then again, neither is Infinite Jest. Or Catch-22. Or The Great American Novel. Twain? Hemingway? Fitzgerald? All good candidates, but start with Moby Dick.

Freedom, though, is (what passes for) a great American novel, vast and open and experimental (but not really) and trying to be everything at once in a great rush of excitement, and eventually disappointment and a a bit of a headache.

Dostoevsky tells us that happy families are all alike, and in so doing exposes one of the novelist’s best tricks--follow a family and catalog their miseries. The Berglunds shouldn’t merit a novel; they have an American Dream life in Saint Paul, Minnesota, when the story opens. But Franzen uses one of Vonnegut’s favorite plot moves: someone gets into trouble, then gets out of trouble. It’s simple, but if it’s trouble enough, it can carry a novel easily.

And the Berglunds, they get into some trouble. Franzen tears this family apart, and when only a faint glimmer of hope remains, squelches it. This would make a fine ending.

It would also be an easy ending, because the anti-climactic years between losing hope and death are tedious for everyone. Yet this coda, this uniquely American need for closure, is also where the Berglunds get out of trouble, at the very last moment. So of course everyone loves it. In spite of this obvious, unnecessary and sorta cop-out ending, this over-hyped book is an enjoyable experience, easy to read in a well-crafted, invisible way and easy to keep picking up until there is too much invested in the characters to quit. Go ahead, read it all.

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