Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Random Notes Written Shortly After Finishing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

It’s like how you close a plastic bread bag on the loaf, cinching the bread snug and giving the bag a twirl around to tighten its noose, then wedging on the annoying, sharp-edged plastic wrapper tag, the thing that inevitably breaks after a few re-sealings.

It’s like the 4 oz lemon vodka martini drank while reading the last 75 pages, cold, potent on an all-afternoon empty stomach, the butter crunch-coated  peanuts inadequate in their role of absorbent agent.

It’s like the supper not yet eaten, not even cooked, the corn sliced from the freshly steamed ears and sautéed in butter with lime juice, salt, and little nuggets of feta cheese that ooze into melty crust when they stay too long in contact with the skillet face; and fried eggs and buttered toast; a yellow meal. And beer. Like the beer that Walter Berglund supposedly drank only three of by the age of 47 (one of many improbable details encountered over 562 pages).

Here comes Richard Katz, a character ill-suited to his pedestrian name, an unlikely rock star and lacking in conveyed charisma – but who nevertheless lives in this story like the dark circles under a tired person’s eyes. 

It’s the drizzle of an oddly humid late September night in New England, thick cloud skies bringing darkness even earlier to a strangely summer-like evening. 

There’s little Joey, perhaps the most unlikely of all the characters in this saga of our times, the 19 year old war profiteer, the cool one. "[T]hen he went back to Paraguay” and made the deal for the truck parts and sent them to Iraq. As simple as that. As if any 19 year old American boy could actually accomplish such a task in these times of perpetual adolescence when men are teenagers and teenagers are children and everyone has their face stuck in a gadget. How many Americans even know where Paraguay is? And is it landlocked or does it have a coastline? 

And yet. And yet Joey’s money-making scheme, his little University of Virginia young Republican money-making scheme actually brings home perfectly the reality of the contractor fraud and corruption swirling around the Iraq War. Without the polemics. 

The fighting, oh the fighting. But not in Iraq, in the home. All the homes. The bickering. The surfeit of snarky comebacks and gotcha’s. All adding up to capital D Dysfunction. Like television. Reading Freedom was like watching good television drama (is that an oxymoron?) – except better because of the words on the page. Page after page. Pages you don’t want to stop reading. Or watching.

Here’s one of the amazing things. The main characters are people you both dislike and have a great deal of sympathy for. You can understand them, dislike them, ache for them, revile them. Which means – you can connect with them. Notwithstanding the improbability: Connie never getting pregnant by Joey despite fucking, seemingly nonstop, from the age of 14 ‘til the tender age of 21 (when the novel leaves them by coming to the end); Patty’s entire relationship with Eliza, or her attraction to Richard Katz; Walter’s saintliness; Joey’s teenage disobedience. Etc. All possible. But all (to this reader) a little too contrived, a little too unlikely. Yet every character was within this reader’s grasp of understanding/seeing/knowing/relating to. 

Walter’s road rage. Franzen nailed that one. 

But do parents snark at their kids the way Patty snarks at Joey and Joey snarks back at Patty? 

My fridge is making noises, a god is barking in the drizzly neighborhood beyond the backyard fence, cars slash along rain-soaked rt. 12 a block over. It’s my rainy Tuesday night when I’d intended to go listen to James Howard Kunstler (one of the snarkiest of the snarks) reading from his new novel The Witches of Hebron at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge. Bagged Kunstler and the commuter rail for home-shaken cocktail and a few final hours alone reading Franzen. 

This is an American night after all. I could have ordered pizza. Watched TV. 

Funny how the back dust jacket of Freedom is resplendent with blurbs about Franzen’s other book, The Corrections. Was that really necessary? Does this one have to thrive or sink on the basis of a successful novel he wrote almost ten years ago? But that’s just publishing. 

This is no review, just some impressionistic comments in the soon aftermath of reading.


  1. I get your TV comparison. To me, the whole thing was like one big long silly soap opera--not a poorly written one, by any means--but so utterly familiar as to be (purposefully?) banal. I'm always suspicious of books that are that readable: not enough strangeness, not enough ambiguity, not enough gaps for me to have to work in.

  2. Hey B, sorry for not responding sooner. Thanks for the conversation. "Purposefully banal" - if so, well, hats off to someone who can scribe 600+ pages of banality to make a point that some lives are banal. THAT would be something.

    I love your idea about "readable books" being suspect. "Not enough gaps for me to have to work in." That's great stuff. I agree, leave some areas that my own observational and unsettled mind can add to, some details that require filling in.