Mar 5, 2011

Book review: Freedom

Up today: Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. Summary: this insightful and well-constructed work ultimately did not live up to the hype.

Freedom is the story of one family, the Berglands, a typical four-member unit, and their musician friend.  Their lives are drawn in exquisite detail; the richness that Franzen manages to create (reflecting what must have been a massive amount of work) is the best part of the book.  I won't go into much detail about the plot.  Like a lot of modern novels, the plot is almost beside the point; backstory makes up about half the book.

The defining feature of the Berglands is that they are mostly miserable failures.  The book is saturated with awkwardness, anxiety, and resentment; with competition, hatred, envy, and dishonesty; and most of all with sheer bloody-minded foolishness.  This litany of failures (which barely lets up throughout the book) are mostly of the small, pathetic variety.  Though there was some reconciliation towards the end, was a hard book to finish.

What makes the book good is that Franzen's depiction of these failures is astonishingly insightful—he hits very close to the mark again and again.  Every person will cringe now and again reading the book, recognizing some past mistake in Walter or Patty.  What makes the book bad is that most people are not quite that bad at living.  Each instance of foolishness is in itself well-demonstrated, but the totality of each character is simply not convincing.  Freedom is a book that purports to capture at least a significant fraction of the American experience, and it does not succeed.

The message of the book, insofar as one can be discerned, is that the "freedom" of American life is profoundly alienating and unhealthy.  I was strongly reminded of Infinite Jest—though that book is more focused on entertainment and advertising, the end state for America is largely the same.  Nearly every character in both books has profound psychological problems.

This isn't to say that I don't think there's something to Franzen's thesis.  I see it in our treatment of prisoners, our higher-than-average insanity rate (espcially in the libertarian Mountain West), and our perennial warmongering.  But I simply don't believe that excessive freedom (or entertainment culture) is capable of fouling up every person (or most people) as bad as Franzen seems to think.

This isn't a defense of America so much as it is greater confidence in human beings, and a rebellion of my own life against such characterizations.  One recurring theme in Freedom is atrocious, competitive relationships between fathers and sons, and it simply does not describe my own life at all.  I have an extremely friendly and loving relationship with both my parents, and if I turn out to be half the man my father is I should consider my life well-lived.

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