Self-imposed Yuppie Hell
I?m not quite sure what to say about Freedom by Jonathan without my own literary prejudices and tastes polluting the discussion. It wasn't a bad book by any means. Full of irony, satire and, ultimately, redemption on one hand and vaguely unlikeable, self-crippling characters and a meandering story on the other, Mr. Franzen takes his readers on a long hard road. This, apparently, is what we want in a literary writer these days--pages and pages of detail and minutiae of everyday life in the creation of "real" characters. Frankly I find the drama of ?soiled sheets and dirty milk glasses? and the multi-generational history of every character we meet a little wearisome, but, perhaps, I?m in the minority.
I can't help but compare this book to the one I just finished: Empire Falls by Richard Russo. The two books have a very similar theme--the crumbling values (and value) of the middle class. Russo?s Midwesterners are a harder scrabble lot than Franzen?s upper middle class Minnesotans. They are, of course just a flawed as Franzen's--but somehow more sympathetic. A hard-working manager of a local restaurant attempting to juggle his extended family, work and his own wavering self-worth was to me infinitely more sympathetic than the neurotic, entitled, navel-gazing lawyers, jocks and musicians of Freedom. Of course, Mr. Franzen doesn?t want us to sympathize with his characters. He lays their self-imposed yuppie hell bare for our dispassionate dissection. Still 900 pages detailing characters we?re not supposed to like is a little much.
Despite his intricate prose, many of the plot points clanked a little on my sensitivities (the teenage boy moving in with the neighbor girl, the college kid landing a defense contract, the side trip to Patagonia, the famous punk rocker from the University of Minnesota, the environmentalist defending mountain-top removal). That and the overall dour tone were a little disappointing. Mr. Franzen came so well acclaimed as a social satirist that the almost complete and utter lack of humor was pretty surprising.
The ending, when it finally comes, is terrific. It?s almost a Buddhist-like revelation. The characters have hit rock bottom and find redemption in each other?s severely taxed love. The final climatic scene is fitting, as Patty must give up everything in order to ?come in from the cold.? I?m just afraid, in my case, it was a little too little, a little too late.