My Franzen, Freedom Review
PP 3-26: Brilliant. Published in the New Yorker last year as "Good Neighbors," Freedom's first chapter shows the kind of controlled, acid description of family that won Franzen many fans. As I wrote last year after I read the story,
Good Neighbors is delightful. It may be a 300 page novel compressed into five New Yorker spreads, but that just concentrates the delicious schadenfreude evoked by the downfall of Patty Berglund. Franzen knows that you know a Patty, the best mom on the block, with the cute kids, homemade cookies, and the answer to every domestic worry. She covers up her perfection with hyperbole and exaggeration, but you know that she knows she’s won. His story is set in St. Paul in what I would guess to be the early 1980s, before the Twin Cities had Target, and before the minivan (Volvos figure prominently). The Berglunds are gentrifiers, preservationists, and early worriers about toxins. So despite its faintly historic setting, Patty’s fall could be taking place on any block in brownstone Brooklyn, or Jamaica Plain, or whatever neighborhood in Cleveland the young couples are buying in these days. In a season of books about bad dads and worse mothers (all self-labeled, mind you) Good Neighbors is a cautionary tale, saying to all of us worried about sugar and lead, original woodwork and wild fish, that sometimes it is important to focus less on what’s coming in to your home and more on the individuals already inside.
What struck me more forcefully in the second reading was the suppressed rage that seemed to suffuse even the most light-hearted satirical bits. Seen as the opening of a novel, rather than a compression of one, the Berglunds’ story stands as a dark portent. It is also the best part of the book, the rest of which is alternately fascinating, squirm-inducing and very, very boring.
PP 29-49: Or, the other New Yorker story, "Agreeable." Also excellent on first reading, seemed to me a further analysis of different modes of bad parenting in 20th century America. I didn’t even make the connection between Patty Berglund and the teenaged basketball star protagonist of this story. I also never expected this story to have been written, as revealed in the novel, by Patty herself, as part of some sort of therapy memoir. Here the rage is obvious, but I don’t think the voice, as a third-person memoir, as a woman’s voice, works at all.
Franzen has been criticized in many quarters for taking up too much airtime, and airtime that might be devoted to the domestic novels of women. He has even agreed it is a problem. But few (except Sam Anderson) have talked about this completely unconvincing voice he has created for Patty. Her memoir stretches from page 29 to 187 and I kept forgetting it was a memoir. I thought it was Franzen telling us things.
But one of the things he (she?) never tells us is what she looks like. I find it impossible that a woman in therapy in the early 21st century would not talk about her appearance, especially a former athlete. And I find it impossible that, in her relationships with men, her height and athleticism wouldn’t come up. In “Agreeable” one has a sense of Patty being awkward, gawky and sweaty, too big for her small artsy family, but by the time she goes to college it feels as if she has shrunk. Not until a midlife crisis does she again tower and sweat.
PP 208-224: OMG Walter (Berglund), listen to yourself. You are so boring! Page upon page of exposition and explanation about mountaintop mining thinly disguised as dialogue. At Walker’s in Tribeca, no less. This would not have been acceptable in any college fiction course.
PP 232-289: Joey Berglund goes to college. As soon as Freedom leaves St. Paul, its settings become thin and artificial. Washington D.C. exists as one mansion, one chain gym; New York as a Wall Street guy’s apartment; UVa as a dorm room. It reads like a low-budget movie trying to save on locations. It doesn’t help that, just as we never “see” Patty as an adult, arrogant, good-looking, lucky Joey never makes himself lovable to us. It is not that all the characters need to be likable, we just need to see what others see in them. And I don’t see anything good in Joey. Franzen tells us, much later, after an improbable trip to Paraguay (again, a nation in one junkyard) and a get-rick-quick scheme that is supposed to net $800,000 (couldn’t it have been more in the realm of reality, a quick $50,000?) that he has a cool head for business, but it is all told, not shown.
I begin to wonder whether Franzen has a gift for visual writing. The only characters that feel fleshed-out physically are his stand-ins, Walter and Richard, and the middle-aged fantasy object Lalitha. Most characters don’t even get a hair color. And the house the Berglunds spent all that time gentrifying? What does it look like?
PP 290-442: Am I going to be able to finish this book? Where’s Patty?
PP 507-537: There she is! More delightful dysfunctional family high jinks. No more sex.
PP 541-562: Hmmm. Warm and fuzzy. Glad to be finished. I think the hardness of the first chapter must have been unsustainable, and might have been unpleasant, over 500 pages. It might have made Freedom more like The Privileges, which I reviewed here, and Franzen selected for New Yorker readers. But Freedom never felt to me like a finished product. It all sounded like him, despite chapter headings and section titles intended to create a multi-point perspective. And the big themes, intended (one supposes) to make this a big book rather than a domestic narrative, bored me to death. I would have been happier in that kitchen in St. Paul, watching Patty regrout the tile.