The Challenge: Write Something Fresh About Jonathan Franzen’s Book

Here’s the challenge I gave myself, after I was invited to write a brief review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom for The Book Studio: think of something to say about this book that hasn’t already been said.

It’s no easy challenge, since this is the big book of the year, and also since I’ve already written about the book twice on Litkicks. But I was determined to come up with at least one or two original angles for my Book Studio piece. I was also determined to write about the book and only the book, and not to review the media coverage (as so many other reviewers have done).

Here’s the Book Studio piece, which I hope you’ll find worth reading (it’s short, if it has no other saving grace). I tried to emphasize two aspects of the book that, as far as I know, no other reviewer, interviewer, literary critic or blogger has yet mentioned:

• POINT # 1:

Where is the author Jonathan Franzen in this book? He must be somewhere among these characters. Unless you’re one of these fiction purists who insists that an author’s real-life circumstances have nothing to do with that author’s work, you’ve probably also been wondering: is he Walter Berglund, Patty Berglund, Richard Katz, Joey Berglund?

We know that Jonathan Franzen was a close friend of the late David Foster Wallace, and Wallace’s presence can be felt in the characters of Patty (the super-focused athlete) and Richard Katz (the too-cool indie rocker). So that’s where David Foster Wallace is in this book, but where is Jonathan Franzen?

I try to answer that question in the Book Studio piece, and I think my generation-minded answer provides a new possible entry point into the meaning of this work.

• POINT # 2:

Is J-Franz, a famously acerbic loner (he once wrote a book called How To Be Alone), actually trying to express a warm, optimistic attitude towards love and marriage in this book? He seems to be doing exactly that. I won’t give anything away, but I will say that while Freedom is not a happy story, it does grant several characters a very traditional happy ending.

In fact, one of the strongest images in the book is of itchy young Joey Berglund swallowing his wedding ring and then digging for it, which several reviewers mocked for its similarity to a scene in The Corrections where the senile old man hallucinates about a talking turd. While both scenes contain undoubtedly strong images, I point out something in my Book Studio piece that many reviewers overlooked about this sequence in the book: it was not about how he finally retrieved the ring, but about how he felt when the ring was inside him.

By now, I think I’ve written enough about this book, and I don’t plan to mention Freedom on this site again for a while. At least not until November, when it’s going to win the National Book Award.

I hereby set you free — free from reading any more about my enthusiasm for this book.

The image at the top of the page is from a YouTube video of a real-life cerulean warbler, courtesy of the American Bird Conservancy.

3 Responses

  1. Answer to Point No. 1:
    Answer to Point No. 1: Jonathan Franzen is Walter Berglund.

    I suggest you read Franzen’s long, anguished article in the July 26, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. It’s entitled “Emptying the Skies” and it concerns the decimation of the songbird population in the Mediterrranean, namely in Cyprus, Malta and Italy. That destruction of millions of songbirds, by trapping them, is done for fun and profit — eating songbirds is considered a delicacy in those regions. Sure it’s illegal, but it is so widespread that law enforcers look the other way and it is almost impossible to get a conviction of the poachers.

    So Janathan Franzen is unquestionably Walter.

  2. I agree with that. That’s
    I agree with that. That’s pretty much the conclusion I come to in my review — and, again, the interesting thing is that between The Corrections and Freedom, Franzen has moved from a son’s primary point of view to a father’s.

    Of course, in both books, all the characters have aspects of the author — I don’t mean to oversimplify. I think Franzen put a lot of himself into the character of Richard Katz, too, and I wonder if the scenes where Katz reacts bitterly to fame were meant to refer to Franzen’s own messy first brush with major-league fame, after Oprah picked his earlier novel for her book club and he reacted by insulting her in public …

  3. Great review, Levi.
    I just

    Great review, Levi.

    I just finished Freedom last night and by golly, what an achievement. I thought it was great till the very very end…those traditional happy endings did not have the same searing authenticity that the rest of the book had.

    No matter though, it is a masterpiece.

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