I Don't Want Your Freedom
Freedom - Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2010)
The hype-machine has certainly done its work for this book. Ensconced in the Hardback Top Ten, with HarperCollins' giant paperback edition competing for the beach reader’s buck on the 'Buy One Get One Half Price' table in Gatwick’s W H Smith’s alongside Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson, Freedom seems to be on everyone's must-read list despite the fact that most of us had never even heard of its author a fortnight ago.
So how has a work marketed a ‘Literary’ scored such a commercial smash hit? The reason is simple – this is in fact mainstream commercial fiction with literary knobs on. There are no surprises here.
Take the cast (please): Patty is a female Garp, morphed from a wrestler into a basketball jock; Richard, the unattained pash of Patty’s college years, is a deck-laying coke-snorting aspiring rock star who thinks and talks in a way I imagine a fictional Lou Reed might think and talk if he weren’t already fictional; Patty’s husband, Walter, is Richard’s best friend, and – in case Franzen thinks we are unable to grasp that they have contrasting personalities – is a teetotalling nerd who is prone to blushing (he has a pill-empowered rant from a podium late in the book that is too reminiscent of Lucky Jim to be excusable); Patty and Walter’s son, Joey, is an inconsistent mess of a character, at first a smart-talking, quick-thinking teenage entrepreneur, then soon after turning into a self-doubting new Jew pathetically being given the runaround by his best friend’s beautiful airhead sister.
This sister, Jenna, is one of many dubiously-drawn women in the book. They include Patty’s besotted college friend Eliza, who conceals her heroin addiction from Patty, and pays the ultimate price (Patty spots her in a welfare line years later and reports that she has PUT ON WEIGHT. Yes, Freedom is one of Oprah’s recommendations!); there is Patty’s sensible daughter Jessica, for whom Franzen never gets around to dreaming up an interesting storyline; we have Walter’s young-enough-to-be-his-daughter assistant and lover, Lalitha, who is so driven by love and moral conviction she ends up driving off the side of a mountain; Joey’s moronically doting girlfriend Connie, who indulges in some self-harming that Franzen soon loses interest in; Connie’s white trash mom, Carol, who is everything you’d expect a white trash mom to be; and the aforementioned Jenna, who is a heartless horse-riding bitch whose depiction borders on misogynistic.
So what qualifies Freedom as the latest Great American Novel? Not much, in truth. Franzen bores us with