A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

Freedom: Review

I wish I could write with the relentless assurance of Jonathan Franzen. Reading Freedom, I was reminded of massive canvases in museums with a single line of color down the middle, of defensive-minded boxers who win doggedly unspectacular matches by refusing to make a single mistake over 15 rounds, of Guitar George, who knows all the chords, mind he’s strictly rhythm he doesn’t wanna make it cry or sing. He lays down each word, one at a time, always the right one. When he wants to show off, he writes from the point of view of a character whose sentences are slightly less complex.

“Literary” authors are generally known for their showboating—Joyce’s stream of consciousness, Hemingway’s descriptive asceticism, Wallace’s layers of footnotes and endnotes undergirding his novels like a digressive layer of flatbread. Franzen avoids any of these literary pyrotechnics, anything jarring or difficult to follow. On top of that, there doesn’t seem to be much to the story he’s writing, which is essentially about a decades-long love triangle between 3 people who all meet in college in Minnesota.

This combination—a mundane story, told in a mundane way—somehow is the most compulsive page-turner I’ve read since I finished N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy last year. I’m honestly at a loss to describe or understand how Franzen pulls it off.

I could, with some authority, try to focus on the way Freedom captures the years of the George W. Bush administration from the point of view of an upper-middle-class white family. But I don’t really see much similarity between this family and mine. I could, with markedly less authority, try to parse the novel in terms of the goals that Franzen has stated he is trying to achieve with his novels—to bring the influence of German and Russian writers more forcefully into modern American literature. But I don’t detect much of that here, though, having only read the shortest books by Dostoevsky and Mann, I wouldn’t expect to.

There’s also the few hints of literary self-consciousness I did pick up: the symmetrical narrative structure, the thing he does in The Corrections where the reader’s perspective shifts just enough to make a sympathetic character seem ridiculous, a May-December romance that doesn’t seem quite as vital and lovely as the novel seems to think. But I don’t think any of this stuff gets me any nearer an answer.

I think what it boils down to is Franzen’s understanding of emotion: why we feel certain ways about certain people, and the effect our self-image and outward emotion have on each other. There were several moments in the novel where an emotion is articulated in such a way that I think: I know what that is. I couldn’t have described it if you asked, but I have felt this exact thing before, without having the words to know it. And maybe that’s the reason it’s so interesting to read about the internal lives and romantic travails of a environmental lawyer, college basketball star, and alt-country musician: somehow, improbably, we find something in these unremarkable lives that gives us insight into our own.

Interested in reading this? I’m an Amazon Affiliate, meaning that I link products from Amazon, and if anyone clicks those links to buy the product, they pay me a commission. If you’re interested in purchasing Freedom, just follow the link below:

Freedom: A Novel (Oprah’s Book Club)

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This entry was posted on 28 October 2019 by in Elegant Extracts and tagged , , .
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