Jonathan Franzen, Freedom: a novel (Fourth Estate 2010)
There’s no doubt this is a terrific book. It tells the story of one US family through the Bush–Clinton–Bush–Obama years, taking in the bigger picture (the Iraq invasion, environmental despoliation, global warming, technological change …), while giving us sharply realised characters whose lives illuminate the times without ever feeling as if they’re determined by the author’s agenda. The words free, freedom, liberty and so on ring like chimes through the pages suggesting without being glib that a freedom that involves loss of connection – to other people, to the natural world, to one’s own best self – is not worth having. I love the way characters are astonished to find themselves reproducing patterns of behaviour they have hated in their parents, and the way character after character struggles for integrity in a deeply compromised and compromising society. A sequence in the last seven pages touched some deep place in me that made the whole book sing.
But I was a resistant reader until those last pages. Partly this was a matter of timing – two things had set me up to fight the book every inch of the way.
First: I began reading it with those shocking VIDA pie charts about gender and literary publishing fresh in my mind, knowing that Freedom had been published amid a hype-storm unthinkable for a grown up novel written by a woman. As a result the book had an invisible frame around it announcing it as a privileged book by a privileged author about privileged characters, to read which was an endorsement of white English-speaking middle-class male privilege. This frame was gilded by the experience of reading in public. I regularly read while walking, while waiting in queues, on the bus, a practice that occasionally provokes comment, but only with this book have perfect strangers asked me how I’m enjoying it, and then say what they’ve heard – this happened twice.
The whole book can be read as a criticism of that very privilege, though I only noticed the word once. After I had written the first draught of the previous paragraph I encountered the only non-White characters in the book (apart from a beautiful and talented young woman of Indian heritage, who does have a major role), in this sentence, at a funeral towards the end:
It was only when the service finished that Patty saw the assortment of underprivileged people filling the rear pews, more than a hundred in all, most of them black or Hispanic or otherwise ethnic, in every shape and size, wearing suits and dresses that seemed pretty clearly the best they owned, and sitting with the patient dignity of people who had more regular experience with funerals than she did.
So privilege is explicitly acknowledged, but the people who don’t share it are more or less interchangeable. I’m not saying every book has to have a politically correct diversity in its cast of characters, but in this case I found the lack of it painful and it put me in a fighting mood.
Second: when I was about a hundred pages in, a guest on the Book Show used Freedom as an example of a book that uses electronic social media well, and went on to describe a major turning point of the plot. As a result, for the next 300 pages I noticed the little moments and comments that were building towards that point, so that I registered them as parts of a justifying mechanism rather than as elements of story. Maybe Franzen did his foreshadowing clumsily and mechanically, but it’s more likely that I was reading with a peculiar – spoiled – alertness. (Thanks, Ramona!)