Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

What I Just Finished Reading: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (2010)

Jonathan Franzen’s central male character in Freedom, Walter, comes from Hibbing, Minnesota, Bob Dylan’s hometown, and grew up in the alcoholic dystopia of the Whispering Pines Motel.

For the uninitiated, “Whispering Pines” was a haunting song sung by Dylan’s sometimes harmonizer, the haunted alchoholic Richard Manuel of The Band. This song of perpetual loneliness by the soon-to-be suicide Manuel is a good soundtrack to this review of disappointed hopes and delusions. So press play below and read on.

Walter is the sort of liberal who gives liberalism a bad name.

Tortured by his family, humiliated by women who know that he will suck greedily on whatever degradation they offer, and ultimately so compromised by naive ambition that erase any good he might have done, the Walters of the world would drive any sensible person to the nearest tea party.

Walter is the book’s first problem. If you can’t be brought to feel even the remotest connection to the protagonist, can you enjoy a book?

Well, you can vacation on Franzen’s dialogue. Every sentence, Yeah, every paragraph is wonderful. But, my God, how long can you live with this man?

And why does Walter’s pitiful, alchoholic (are we starting to discern a pattern here?) wife Patty stay with him for so long without a trace of love for the man? We at least bought the book. What is her investment?

Let’s not even bring up Walter and Patty’s son’s romantic interest, who emerges as an elemental sexual source but is allowed to lie so fallow so frequently that even a bored reader feels like urging her “Move On”.

A few months ago, in relation to the Stieg Larrson series, I brought up the essay by Mark Twain on James Fenimore Cooper’s literary sins which apply to too many action authors today, even if they are writing about bisexuals with Asperger’s Syndrome and not bosomy frontier heroines.

I wonder what Mark Twain’s modern Literary Crimes of Jonathan Franzen would look like. Would he point out the triteness of Walter’s redemption relying on getting drunk and blurting out truths in front of the national media? Would he note that any literary trope involving “in vino veritas” was employing a device as old as the Romans?

Also, do we really need a fatal car accident to save novelistic space to bring true lovers together? For crying out loud, that is how I got the girl in my 12 year-old’s fantasies of sexual union. (The fact that the 13 year-olds I consigned to the grave didn’t drive yet never occurred to me.)

You will enjoy long stretches of Freedom, but any talk of this as the first great American novel of the 21st Century is nonsense. Franzen’s crime are not mere misdemeanors.

What I’ Reading Now: Bob Dylan in America by Sean Willentz.


About Patrick Young

Program Director of the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) and Supervising Attorney for the Westchester Hispanic Coalition. Blogs for Long Island Wins and New York State Immigrant Action Fund
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