Book Saloon: Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”

Posting was light over the last few days because I was working in Seattle, but the attendant train rides finally gave me time to read the latest from one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Franzen.  While it may sound a tad cliche and as such not entirely believable, I discovered Franzen long before Oprah did, when his breakout novel, “The Corrections,” led her to praise the book and feature it on her famous book club, whereupon the proudly elitist Franzen made some witty but dismissive utterances that got him booted from her show.  Unsurprisingly, the book still sold, and for good reason.

At least a dozen years ago, I was languidly perusing the sale bins at Powell’s, and came across an arresting cover of a first novel about the stunning decline of yet another once-great American city, St. Louis, entitled “The Twenty-Seventh City.” Reading the jacket called to mind my studies in college of the strikingly Darwinian and fast paced competition between equally eager American cities for national dominance, and how it all rather unexpectedly played out.  The book opens with the now-startling fact that in 1900, St. Louis was among the largest few cities in America, with pretensions to match, and now it was 27th and shrinking.  Hell, I hardly ever read fiction, but for less than four bucks (in hard cover, to boot…) I was willing to give it a try.

Ah, what a reward. In a style that all these years later has come to be called “Franzenian,” the characters in the book are tremendously complicated but ultimately lovable despite themselves, with villains and heroes constantly shifting while the deliciously biting prose provokes gasps, guffaws, and groans in equal measure, something that is a mixed blessing for reading on a train, as you can imagine.  Best of all, Franzen’s lyrical style, which produces phrases, sentences, and whole pages so transcendently lovely as to require a second read, made the lurid and somewhat conspiritorial plot seem as alarmingly plausible as it was clearly meant to be.  I was a little disappointed with the ending, but I was completely hooked.  Then as now, Franzen seemed to have a thing about Indians (dot, not feather..), which finally reemerges in Freedom.

Naturally, having devoured The 27th City with relish, I was delighted to discover a subsequent novel, equally unappreciated and therefore also underpriced, Strong Motion. In this second effort, set in Massachusetts, a typically amoral corporation decides that the best way to get rid of its toxic wastes is to inject them into its tapped out wells, a handy and money-saving trick which turns out to have the unfortunate side effect of causing earthquakes, lots of them, in that previously seismically quiescent vicinity.  As could only happen in a Franzen novel, hilarity ensues, along with a gratuitous car farting incident, which of course I liked.

Then came “The Corrections.” In it, Franzen had finally figured out how to end what he’d proven himself so adept at starting; a rollicking page-turner of a novel that mixed sublime writing, dynamic characters, belly laughs and near-tears with a politically and historically relevant narrative that was as educational as it was humbling.  In their odd media battle, Oprah and Franzen were both right; everyone capable of fogging a mirror would love the book, and, it was also a bit too good for Oprah’s Book Club.  The Ford Explorer would, for me and many others, be forever known as the Stomper, after reading The Corrections.

Sadly, I was both delighted and dismayed at how easily Freedom went down; Franzen has perhaps conquered his old ending problem a little too thoroughly; no longer did I feel any doubt that his typically left-handedly favored characters would never come completely to grief, and as I finished the book today, I had the sinking but not entirely unpleasant sensation that like many authors before him, he’d finally hit on a brand, a franchise of sorts that would make him rich but not ruffle any feathers unnecessarily.  Heck, maybe even Oprah will take him back.

I highly recommend Freedom, so I’ve said little about it because I don’t want to spoil it, but any serious reader should read the others too, if only to see what might have been.

4 Comments

  1. dirigo says:

    It’s too fracking much.

  2. cocktailhag says:

    Yeah, Franzen was onto that before the richies even invented it. You have to hand him that, at least.

  3. Annice says:

    Can’t wait to read it now.. hand it over! I promise to return it…if not you know where I live! LOL