Sunday, October 17, 2010

Franzen's Frantic Decade

Since Jonathan Franzen's hugely critical and popular success with THE CORRECTIONS in 2001, the world has undergone far too much "shock and awe." THE CORRECTIONS was a family drama about a middle American clan that falls apart in quiet and occasionally spectacular ways against the background of the last decade of the twentieth century. Now Franzen is back with a vengeance with another novel that deals with family implosion, but this time the period is primarily the George W. Bush/Cheney years, and the equation between the Bergland family and the financial, political, and wartime failures of the Bush years is much closer. When the characters, especially the male ones, speak, they unleash tirades against everything from global warming to government corruption to over-population. Sometimes the message overwhelms the character's development as a believable human being. But, for the most part, FREEDOM succeeds in most arenas. It is a strong wake-up call for Americans to keep fighting those seemingly impossible fights for a better life for every person.

For over 500 pages, Franzen chronicles the love/hate triangle among three terribly matched college friends--Walter Bergland and Patti Bergland, and Richard Katz. One of the major criticisms of these characters is that they are unlikable, self-absorbed, and totally unaware of how much damage they are doing to themselves and t hose around them. This is a justifiable complaint, though Franzen has the knack of keeping us interested in several ways. Just how low will Patti go before she finally caves into her insatiable sexual desire for the Dylanesque rocker Richard? How much more debasement can the puritanical husband Walter put himself through as he tries to maintain his love for both Patti and Richard? How long can the Bergland marriage last? Patti, an outstanding college athlete with little self-esteem and a great loathing of her family, to Walter, a young man who has seized his success despite his poor background. Richard is the one who seems to lack a moral center. He thinks about not using people, but thinking does not trump action. As for Walter, his love of nature leads him to make compromises that lead to the dissolution of his dreams, his marriage, his friendships, and his family. Now, if all this seems too heavy or depressing, be aware that Franzen is a terrific writer who blends wry humor with irony and surprise plot twists. If you have read THE CORRECTIONS, you know that he knocks the reader over in the middle of the book and then withholds the punchline for many chapters.

I certainly won't spoil any surprises in FREEDOM, a novel that is annoying, satisfying, and brilliantly written. This one takes effort and interest on the part of its readers, and that makes it worth the work.

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