Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sunday Salon: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

It's been a busy week, with not that much time for reading. However, every night, sometimes all through the night if I haven't been able to sleep, I have been listening to my audiobook: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Looking through reviews of this book I see that people seem to either hate it or love it. So far, and I have almost finished it, I have loved it. I have heard it is a 'Great American Novel' for our times, and because American and British histories have been so much entwined during my lifetime, I have found that it is a novel that describes a lot of my life too. I certainly recognise the concerns and foibles of the characters.

The book is called Freedom, and the place where this is most overtly mentioned is in the middle of the book where Joey, who has always thought of himself as a liberal-thinking Democrat without any sort of religion, finds himself re-assessing his stance. This new viewpoint liberates him; a freedom he acquires only because he is lucky enough to have another freedom: the freedom to choose. If this novel is a mirror held up to society then the image that Franzen sees may be distasteful in many of the details, but overall the view is good: in the land of the Free there is still the Freedom to choose happiness.

I love the structure of this book. The first section gives a short history of a family's life in a suburb, concentrating on the relationship between mother, Patty, and her son, Joey which rapidly turns acrimonious. The second section is Patty's autobiographical account of her life so far written at the request of a therapist, which is funny and gives fresh insight. The fortunes and histories of Joey, the husband, Victor, and the husband's best friend, Richard, are then revealed, and the history of the family moves on. By this time they have left the suburb and have spread around the eastern parts of the US to Washington, New York and the south. It even, at one stage, moves to Patagonia. It is a more affluent Patagonia than I ever encountered, but convincing all the same.

Apart from that I have a few more books on my reading pile I am anxious to read or finish: 'The Scent of Cinnamon' by Charles Lambert which is an anthology of short stories, the first of which is a fine ghost story, beautifully told. A friend has recommended that I read 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society' by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, 'Zen Flesh, Zen Bones' compiled by Paul Reps recommended to me by Hodmandod Senior, and then to continue my interest in reading the literature of the far east, I am going to read 'Kokoro' by Natsume Soseki - a Japanese masterpiece of the twentieth century.

Post script. I just found Jonathan Franzen's rules on writing on Wikipedia - which makes interesting reading:

  1. The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.
  2. Fiction that isn't an author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn't worth writing for anything but money.
  3. Never use the word "then" as a ­conjunction – we have "and" for this purpose. Substituting "then" is the lazy or tone-deaf writer's non-solution to the problem of too many "ands" on the page.
  4. Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.
  5. When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
  6. The most purely autobiographical ­fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more auto­biographical story than "The Metamorphosis".
  7. You see more sitting still than chasing after.
  8. It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction (the TIME magazine cover story detailed how Franzen physically disables the Net portal on his writing laptop).
  9. Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
  10. You have to love before you can be relentless


Blogger Laurel-Rain Snow said...

I am reading Freedom, too, between other books I've read this week. I expect to read bits and pieces throughout the upcoming week, savoring it. I am enjoying it more now...the first 50 pages or so didn't really capture me.


Sun Feb 27, 02:53:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Such a coincidence we should both be reading this book at the same time! I hope you like it as much as I did.

Sun Feb 27, 03:03:00 pm  
Anonymous ojimenez said...

It's interesting that you are 'listening' to the book. I succumbed to the hype and bought the book, reading it was simply boring: I only wanted to tell the characters: "Oh, grow up" and "Get a life, for God's sake" I could not get to 'like' the characters, or sympathize with them. As a novelist, Mr. Franzen is certainly a skilled writer this book, however, for me, did not live up to its hype. Go figure!


Sun Feb 27, 11:57:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I think you may have a point, Ojimenez. The narrator of this audiobook was excellent - and I wonder if he was an essential feature of my enjoyment. Maybe I ought to read the book as well.

Mon Feb 28, 07:36:00 am  
Anonymous Mary said...

I've been meaning to read "Freedom," Clare, but wanted to read Franzen's novel "The Corrections" first. I read that a couple of months ago and very much enjoyed it. What I found in "The Corrections" is that Franzen is skilled at revealing the psychological underpinnings of his characters. I've never read a book with quite that much psychological detail before. Does "Freedom" feature this as well?

Mon Feb 28, 09:18:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, Mary, that's one of the main features of Freedom too - very skillful pyschological underpinning. I think some people find this tedious - but I liked and admired it very much. I have the Corrections on a bookcase downstairs, and also a collection of Franzen's essays, I now realise. Looking forward to reading these very much now.

Mon Feb 28, 09:31:00 pm  
Blogger Marly Youmans said...

Interesting what he says about research, since I had thought of him as one of those writers who inserts a lot of information along the way...

Tue Mar 01, 02:29:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, Marly, I don't like these rules of his very much, to be honest. They give me the impression he's sneering at a lot of excellent writers who do write from a another point of view, and use a lot of research - people like Peter Carey or Hilary Mantel, for instance.

Each to their own, I say.

Tue Mar 01, 03:12:00 pm  

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