I don’t much like being critical of books – where does it get you? – but, despite its self-conscious bigness (and heavens, does it go on) Jonathan Franzen’s novel ‘Freedom’ has the word ‘dated’ running through it, stick-of-rock-like. This is emphatically a book for liberal-minded 50-somethings and if you’re under the age of 45 I would imagine you’d have trouble understanding what the fuss is about.
It does have the virtues of soap opera, in that one thing leads to another, and you want to find out what happens next, although there is an overwhelming dread (the same dread that keeps me from watching soap operas) that it is NEVER GOING TO END.
There are three central characters, none of whom you would want to spend more than about 5 minutes with if they existed (although the tobacco-chewing rock star Richard has his droll moments). They find that their ‘freedom’ is savagely curtailed by sexual desire. And that’s about it. The author bungs in lots of social history, politics and a seasoning of literature, in order, I suppose, to ‘contextualize’ his story, but what it comes down to in the end is sex and how it gets in the way of everything. And sex, as we all know, is fun to do but dull to read about.
What Franzen does to involve you in his characters’ lives is to write about them at enormous length. By about page 350, wanting to give up, you feel you have to get to the end in order to justify having read so far in the first place. The book is also remarkably monotonal; there is never any change of pace or voice. Even the passages supposedly written by one of the characters read exactly as though written by Franzen.
I had a little weep at the sentimental ending, but it was as nothing compared with my relief at having reached it. I daresay many commentators will regard this book as a great piece of social history a la Zola, but Tom Wolfe it sure as hell ain’t. It has none of the panache, nor indeed any of the sheer literary texture that Wolfe brings to his social realism. And it is unrelentingly liberal, indeed it reeks of a kind of intellectual orthodoxy that puts one in mind of some kind of Academy: this is work to please the elite. I’m glad I’ve read it because everyone is talking about it, but I also feel rather robbed of my time in having done so: I could have read, say, The Magic Mountain instead.