Saturday, April 30, 2011

Readings: Jonathan Franzen's FREEDOM

Last night I finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s transcendentally good novel, Freedom. Despite being plagued by a busy schedule of late, I devoured its 562 pages in a week; a pace which—these days—says, “I couldn’t put it down.”

Among his many skills as a writer, Franzen’s ultimate forte, imo, is the development of his characters. Next to that skill, may be his extreme sensitivity in detecting every spooky little nuance of the zeitgeist.

I have selected three excerpts that I particularly liked, each for its own reason. The first one spotlights the character, Walter, with whom I identify strongly on certain levels, one of which is demonstrated here in his opinion of the Dave Matthews Band. [“Dave Katz” is Walter’s long-time best friend, a “legendary” alternative rock musician; Insanely Happy is song by a band Walter has just been to see with Patty, his wife]:

On the way home to Ramsey, in the family Volvo, Walter raved about the excellences of Insanely Happy and the debased taste of an American public that turned out by the millions for the Dave Matthews Band and didn’t even know that Richard Katz existed.

“Sorry,” Patty said. “Remind me again what’s wrong with Dave Matthews?”

“Basically everything, except technical proficiency,” Walter said.


“But maybe especially the banality of the lyrics. ‘Gotta be free, so free, yeah, yeah, yeah. Can’t live without my freedom, yeah, yeah.’ That’s pretty much every song.”

Exactly. The resonance of that mini-critique with the novel’s title should not go unnoticed.

Next, this passage, showing Walter’s insight into the Achilles Heel of the American political reality:

“The reason the system can’t be overthrown in this country,” Walter said, “is all about freedom. The reason the free market in Europe is tempered by socialism is that they’re not so hung up on personal liberties there. They also have lower population growth rates, despite comparable income levels. The Europeans are all-around more rational, basically. And the conversation about rights in this country isn’t rational. It’s taking place on the level of emotion, and class resentments, which is why the right is so good at exploiting it.”

I could not agree with that more.

Another thing that I have in common with Walter is a Swedish immigrant great-grandfather with socialist tendencies. Mine drank himself to death at an early age, after coming to this country young and alone and having founded a business as a boiler-maker in Michigan. Franzen imagines Walter’s ancestor thus:

“America, for Einar, was the land of unSwedish freedom, the place of wide-open spaces where a son could still imagine he was special. But nothing disturbs the feeling of specialness like the presence of other human beings feeling identically special. Having achieved, through his native intelligence and hard labor, a degree of affluence and independence, but not nearly enough of either, he became a study in anger and disappointment.”

Franzen had previously said of Einar that: …[he] then relocated to Bemidji, where he did a good business as a road builder but ended up selling his company at a disastrously low price to an oily-mannered associate who’d pretended to have socialist sympathies.” Thus, as it was in northwestern Michigan for my Swedish forebear, so it was very much also in Minnesota for Walter’s.

I predict that anyone who follows my strong recommendation to read this great novel will find similar insights into the many nuances of “freedom” and similar correspondences between the lives Franzen’s characters and their own lives, as expressed in the quest for freedom.