Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I have more to say about Michel Houellebecq’s La Carte et le Territoire, but I’m switching gears today because I finished Franzen’s Freedom last night. It isn’t really my style to trash a novel completely, and Freedom doesn’t actually deserve that, for various reasons that would be a little boring to go into in detail, but I do feel like spending too much time writing about Freedom might actually be a little more than it deserves.

I’ll try to be succinct.

And fair.

Essentially, my frustration with Freedom is two-fold. First, I am strongly averse to novels which attempt – however clever the writing, however clear and thorough the character analysis – to base an entire fictional universe on what is essentially facile psychology. Not a single person in Freedom did anything unexpected, or behaved in any way which wasn’t already signaled by Franzen in the first few paragraphs of their fictional existence and which was then explained away by Franzen through pop psychology drivel, or, excuse me, ideas.

And second, well, frankly, the book made me feel like I was watching a witty reality TV show. Here are the Berglunds airing their difficult marriage for the entire world to see and comment on. And don’t we all feel so much more superior for not behaving like them? Aren’t they all such sad little creatures? And we can feel sympathetic; we can, but not too much, because really it is all their fault, and the fault of that superficial beast of American culture. I mean, come on, can’t we write incisively, meaningfully, about America without mimicking such a problematic form?

I suppose if I had to, I could come up with something nice to say about this book. But those two reactions trump any praise I might have. Franzen is a good writer, and Freedom is nearly an enjoyable read. But I didn’t find anything really clever in Franzen’s project.

In fairness, I think reading Freedom after finishing Houellebecq might have contributed to the violence of my reaction. The two writers are doing something very similar in their novels. Both are a little manic in their attempt to document contemporary culture, both are cynical toward that society (although their cynicism takes vastly different forms), and both are interested in explaining contemporary neuroses. But where Houellebecq’s metafictional experiment plays with form and content, and therefore implicating the reader which brings his social critique full circle in an ingenuous way, Franzen just seemed to recycle pop culture and superficial psychology.

Did I just go ahead and trash the novel? Okay, yeah, pretty much. Well, maybe in a few days I’ll come back with something more balanced…

13 Responses to “a few words on Franzen's Freedom”

  1. Melissa Romo

    Bravo, Michelle! This is the first review of Freedom I’ve read that wasn’t a glowing, swooning litany of praise. I haven’t read it yet, as all the good things being said about it made me wary. I may or may not, especially now that I’ve read your review.

  2. Stefanie

    I’ve yet to read Freedom but it is on my shelf. And given your review and some others I have read around the blogoshere, I will not expect the perfection that the professional swooing reviewers hyped.

  3. whisperinggums

    I think your third last paragraph is a fair summation … he is a good writer, and it was a generally enjoyable read … but there is nothing clever as you say. I suspect it did suffer by contrast. My review is more positive than yours but I agree that it needed something fresh and challenging to carry it through its 560 pages.

  4. Michelle

    Melissa – I steered clear of almost all the reviews about Freedom before I read it, mainly because I figured people fell into two camps. Now that I’ve finished and have started wandering around the reviews, I can see things are obviously more nuanced than that, and there are some wonderfully thoughtful, critical reviews out there, which mine, obviously, isn’t. But I did have a strong reaction to this book, and it felt good to air that reaction. I’d like to come back to it and write something a bit more nuanced, but I think I’ll give myself a week.

    Stefanie – It is interesting how this book seems to have polarized opinion, and not just about the book, but about reviewing as well. I feel like many of the mainstream critics got just as much criticism for how they criticized (or didn’t) the book. I’d love to know what you think of it, if you do get around to reading it.

    Lilian – Thanks, Lilian. I’d be curious, by the way, how you’d consider the book. Especially as a Canadian. So much navel-gazing down in the States, sometimes. At least that is how I perceived it with the distance of an expat.

    Whisperinggums – I’m sure it did suffer by contrast, which is too bad. I look forward to reading your review of it!

    • whisperinggums

      Yes, I steered clear of reviews too – which I tend to do about books I expect to read. I couldn’t completely avoid hearing some of the stuff around the traps of course, but tried to come at it fresh. I like to read the reviews/blogs after I’ve written my own.

      • Michelle

        I’m the same, I try very hard to sort out my thoughts on the book first. With Freedom, this was nearly impossible because it was being talked about literally everywhere. And I do wish I had read The Corrections first, I think it would have given me more of an idea how to meet Frazen on his own terms. He has given some really wonderful intereviews in years past, and I think he is a thoughtful and a critical writer, which is another reason why my initial reaction was so outsized. I was expecting better from him, in a way, something more original, something with a little more bite.

  5. whisperinggums

    I think The corrections is better but it has been 8 or 9 years since I read it. It had more satirical bite to it I think … but it was also a bit baggy!

  6. richhell

    Thank you for this. I read “The Corrections” a few years back and liked it. But then as now, I didn’t understand why it was considered earth-shatteringly good. I’ll probably skip “Freedom” because I’ve no doubt there will be a let-down reading it. Franzen is a good writer, but no review of this book or “The Corrections” has made the case, despite all the rapturous prose, that it’s a defining work of Literary Art, ala the works of Woolf, Faulkner, Joyce, Morrison, etc. that give us a new perspective on and push the boundaries of fiction. And that seems to be missing from all the positive critiques.

  7. Dorothy W.

    I have this on my shelves, and I’m very curious to see how I do with it. My sense is that Franzen could have done better, and even people who liked it might agree with that. But obviously I need to read it before I pronounce things! The truth is, I probably won’t get to it for a while. If it were shorter it would be different. But to invest so much time in a novel I’m not completely enthused about, and that you dislike so much? I’m not sure.

  8. Michelle

    Richhell – No, I don’t think Freedom does enough. It doesn’t push at the boundaries of fiction, you are right about that. Without all the hype, it makes for an interesting read and it does have some pointed comments about American society, but I don’t think it does more than that.

    Dorothy – Yes, long book! I read it because my book group is discussing this week – a discussion i am really looking forward to, especially as we are an international bunch and this is such an American book.

  9. litlove

    I’m really interested in why this book got up your nose. It’s what you say about the characters being set out from the first page and never doing anything unexpected that struck me most. I felt that, too. There was a sort of stranglehold of perfect verisimilitude about the novel – it looked so much like life and yet a plasticised, overly controlled, hyperreal version of it. And the ending disappointed me – the contortions undertaken to give everyone happy closure were quite something. But I thought it was well-written and there were some set piece scenes that certainly have stuck in my mind. I just found it a book I was really curious to talk about – wish I’d had a book club to share it with!

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