Saturday, 23 April 2011

Freedom - Jonathan Franzen

I'm pleased to confirm that Freedom is the masterpiece that everyone says it is, and don't have much to add except "If you like The Corrections ... you'll love this!".

Like The Corrections, Freedom is a family saga embedded in world affairs, with the Iraq war and environmentalism taking the place of the biotech bubble and post-communist Europe. The family is again from the midwestern American middle class, and again its centre of gravity moves east during the course of the book. The similarities and echoes might be tiresome if it weren't almost a decade since I read The Corrections. As it is, it feels fresh.

All this pigeonholing obscures the fact that the Berglunds are just as much a fully-formed and original a family as the Lamberts. The voices are if anything even more distinctive, though the decision to structure part of the book as an autobiography of one of the characters slightly undermines this. Patty's writing is so close in style to the narrator's that I regularly forgot that it was, in fact, supposed to be hers.

Freedom deals with the concerns of the Noughties just as well as The Corrections dealt with the Nineties. But rest assured, this is not an Iraq Book and does not suffer from the "9/11 problem" that so many recent weighty American novels are criticised about. Iraq is treated in a Goldilocks way, not quite in the foreground, not quite in the background, but just right. The main concern of Freedom, or at least of Walter Berglund, is the environment, and just as in The Corrections you wonder whether Franzen is anticipating the problems of the next decade as much as illuminating the problems of the last.

My only issue with Franzen's writing is that it sometimes comes across as a little too omniscient, a little too arch, so that you're left admiring how insightful it all is rather than just enjoying the ride. But this is a small price to pay for a book that pulls off a feat that very few authors appear to aim for, let alone succeed at: writing a novel that is both a work of art and a page-turner. The plot is expertly woven, the characters live and breathe like real people, the story is surprising and moving, and it tells the tale of our times. Just like the last one.

If you like The Corrections ... you'll love this!

by Jonathan Franzen
First published in 2010

See also Jonathan Franzen at the Whitworth Art Gallery.