Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Review - Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate 2010)

Website The Millions voted Jonathan Franzen's last book, The Corrections, as Book of the Decade "by a landslide", and there are certainly few new books that I have read in the last ten years which have made such an impact on me personally. The problem for any author having had such a widely acclaimed success is how to follow it up. Jonathan Franzen has succeeded nine years on by writing a book the form of which draws on much what made "The Corrections" so memorable, but by investing it with a content which once again dissects the American family, however this time the family are liberal environmentalists in George W Bush's America.

The Corrections looked at the State of the Nation through the lives of a Mid-Western family gathering together for Christmas at the behest of the their elderly mother as their father declines through Parkinson's disease. Freedom is similar in many respects. The Bergland family live in Minnesota. They are younger than the Lamberts, their children being of college age. Needless to say, all is not well - mother Patty's behaviour is becoming more and more strained, less able to relate to idealistic liberal conservationist husband Walter. Son Joey has hooked up with the daughter of the Bergland's poor republican next-door neighbours, and is showing distressing right-wing tendencies himself.

Matters come to a head when Walter's former college room-mate, Richard Katz, now himself a priapic angst-ridden musician for whom Patty always held a flame, comes to stay. However the only person that Katz truly loves and respects is Walter, and this impacts in turn how he relates to Patty.

Franzen's great skill is his ability to dissect relationships, how human beings succeed or fail in interacting with each other. There is a compelling logic to the way in which all characters behave, no matter how extreme or how bizarre. This is coupled with an acute authoral sensibility which shines a piercing searchlight into the psyches of his characters. You cannot read a Franzen book without some painful pangs of recognition. And yet, this is not some overwrought angstfest. Franzen observes with humour and a wryness of tone. His tongue isn't quite in his cheek, but his eyebrow may be raised.

We therefore understand in detail, beautifully observed, the origins of Patty's neuroses, her relationship with her family, and how and why she felt as she did about both Walter and Katz. Structurally, a large part of the book is Patty's autobiography written at the behest of her therapist - but we also get to understand what is in the minds of Katz and Walter and the Berglund children.

In what is the only false tone in the book, Walter gives up his Minnesota conservancy job for one in Washington trying to preserve the habitat of the Cerulean Warbler through Mountaintop Removal at the behest of a dodgy Texan with links to Cheney and Mineral Extraction Rights in West Virginia. This is an excuse for some rough satire, like the Lithuanian episode in The Corrections. Franzen's jaundiced view of Capitalism neocon-style may is both funny and acute, but the satire is a sideshow once again to the impact of Walter's work on the family dynamic.
By the end of the book, the main characters' flaws have been laid bare. You sympathise deeply, despite these flaws, because you understand who they are and where they have come from and what made them what they are (needless to say, Philip Larkin was right all along). Yet this is not a work of introspection - you have been entertained throughout through simple, balanced prose and the occasional sentence to die for ("From a distance of many parsecs, he heard her start crying").
And Patty wasn't the only one - I was snivelling on the train as the book came to an end, because you really do care for what the future holds for the Berglunds. Jonathan Franzen has succeeded triumphantly - he has managed the almost impossible task of writing a book as good as The Corrections.

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