More Franzen, more Freedom

Some more thoughts on “Freedom”:

It did only take me two days to finish reading it; no boast, but testament to the immense readability of the writer’s work. On first glance Franzen’s novel (and his previous novel, “The Corrections”) could seem quaintly old-fashioned: a baggy, state-of-the-nation address, chronicling the decline of a middle class American family at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. It holds within its capacious purview subjects such as fickle celebrity, information overload, Iraq, the amorality of business, the USA’s continuing culture wars, late-period capitalism, global overpopulation, environmental activism, etc etc etc. It even has a portentous title, just so you’re clear on the main theme. Franzen avoids the verbal and linguistic pyrotechnics, and the structural and stylistic experimentation, that made his late friend David Foster Wallace so celebrated, unfolding his story instead in uncluttered and lightly ironic prose. This is a novel, the reader is led to believe, on the traditional 19th century scale; all-encompassing, moralistic, fundamentally serious.

All these qualities and seeming defects make “Freedom” the extraordinary book that it is. Franzen’s view that the long-form realistic novel remains the best way of anatomizing a society and culture, exposing its underlying truths and the lies that it generates to legitimise itself, is wholly vindicated here. Franzen’s penetrating intelligence, his sincerity, his acute powers of observation, are allied to a belief that the novel must also be an entertainment, and that entertainment and analysis are not in fact mutually exclusive but can act in tandem in the hands of a skilled writer. The humour in this novel (and it is very funny at times) underwrites its seriousness. It’s accessible without in the least talking down to its readers, and the enormous success of “The Corrections” nine years ago proves that there is a large and relatively untapped audience for serious fiction out there. The small nods and references throughout the novel to “War and Peace” is not an arrogant attempt to put “Freedom” in the same league as Tolstoy’s masterpiece, but to link it to a literary tradition where the realistic novel acts as a form of historical enquiry. It examines how individuals struggle to act in the midst of vast historical change, and how their actions may seem meaningless on the larger scale, but of eclipsing moral significance on the smaller.

I normally hate literary criticism that bases an entire appraisal of a book on a sentimental appreciation of the main characters. If they seem like nice people, then the book must be good, right? No one in “Freedom” seems particularly nice. They don’t seem particularly nasty either; they’re just the best attempt at conveying the flaws and compromises of being a human being in this particular age that I’ve read for some time. Structurally, the book is considerably less naive than it might seem on first glance too, with its looping chronologies, shifts in tone and perspective, and its ability to convey vast amounts of information without seeming didactic.

It’s easy in the first flush of reading something great to over-emphasise its achievements and ignore, or fail to see, its failures. I’ll need to read “Freedom” again at some point, and think about it more deeply before I can be fully objective about it, but for the moment it doesn’t feel like hyperbole to say that it’s the best novel published this decade – certainly the best novel I’ve read for some time. The most recent London Review of Books had a great article about the influence of creative writing programmes on post-war American fiction (the website’s subscriber-only, so I can’t link to it here), the conclusion being that while they may have professionalised the writing of “excellent fiction”, they have seriously undermined the production of great literature, and the two things are not in any way indivisible. Franzen here has produced something that straddles the two; it’s a masterclass of craft, and it will last.

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