Monday, May 9, 2011

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Rating: 3 & 1/2 Stars

It seems that whenever Jonathan Franzen publishes a book, there is a host of literati on stand-by as a hallelujah chorus, ready to burst forth into rhapsodic reviews. Well, since this was the first book of his that I was reading, I was quite curious. Having read it, I would say that ‘Freedom’ has all the potential for a great American satire; if only the tone had been more ironic and less self-serious.

The author has a fine elliptical style, nice dead-pan humor, and a method of characterization that peels away layer after layer of personality. When we see Patty Berglund for the first time, it is through the eyes of her neighbors – the Very Nice Woman who suddenly became the local wack-job. Later on, we see Patty from the inside out, and realize that her melt-down was far from sudden; it was a long time coming.

A word to the wise – if you opt to write a story investing your literary ability mainly in the delineation of character, it behooves the said characters to be, at the very least, interesting. Roughly a quarter of the book is devoted to the painstaking deconstruction of Patty Berglund’s child-woman neuroses. At the end of this process, we’re forced to concur with her poor estimation of herself. There are parts of this novel that have all the somnolent charms of a NPR reading. We can be forgiven if our interest lags.

The conservation of the cerulean warbler, an American songbird, forms a minor sub-plot, in as much as it gives us an insight into the preoccupations of Walter Berglund, Patty’s decent, long-suffering husband. The bonus for the author, probably, is that he gets to riff on the on the impending ecological disaster looming over our planet. Though I have no quibble with his views, I don’t read fiction to receive a harangue.

Others in the Berglund household include their daughter Jessica, quite exasperated and embarrassed by her family. There’s their son, Joey, who despite his shaky judgment still, rather amazingly, manages to keep his life afloat. In disturbingly close orbit to Joey is his girl-friend, Connie, whose single-minded and self-effacing devotion to him would be touching in a golden retriever, but is creepily off-putting in a woman.

The Berglunds seem to have it all – born in a wonderful land of liberty, having a shot at a decent education, opportunities to pursue careers of their choice, comfortable homes in leafy suburbs, and, a family that’s flawed without being too dreadful. Well then, faced with all this bounty, what could be more natural and understandable than that they should go into a tailspin of depression and bad behavior, and come perilously close to self-immolation, before they can earn a hard-won redemption?

Please pardon my lack of indulgence for the self-pitying narcissism that’s such a peculiarly American trait. I’m still recovering from reading Peter Godwin’s horrendous account of life in Zimbabwe where true freedom remains a distant dream. Whereas in the world of the Berglunds, ‘Freedom’ seems to refer to one’s inalienable right to 'f… up one’s life'.

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