Mr Franzen's Ego can only be compared to something like Mt Everest. No, that would not be fair. Let's do Jupiter. Don't get me wrong, I don't see Ego as a bad thing per se. It just comes with the package in the very first years of your life, giving you a strong personality, opinions, leadership, and often some basic arrogance, entitlement, and a disproportionate sense of your own importance.
I've seen and read some interviews with Franzen, and yes,
he does come across as an author who believes his books are incredibly
important. Important to America (Freedom!). Important to the world. It's
not difficult to perceive this self-importance in the book itself,
either, so I perfectly understand the readers who (perhaps pushed over
the edge by that astonishingly irritating Times cover, or by the deluge
of foam-at-the-mouth praising reviews for this book) decided to hate
Franzen from the start.
I was one of them, for sure. I was
ready to shout: "soap opera!", whatever story Franzen was going to tell
me. So, in short, I started by really not wanting to like this book. And
my mission received a strong help by the book's first 200 pages, where Franzen
presents Patty, one of the most difficult and unpleasant characters I've ever read about. She introduces herself in a sort of autobiographical memoir. Her
cold and selfish attitude is made even uglier by the cynicism and
negativity and hopelessness that permeate this first portion of the
book. Just creepy.
But then, when I was just moments from
condemning Franzen to never-ending hatred, some magic happened. The
portion about another character, Katz, started, and I realized that the
tone of the first 200 pages was just a partial act. A trick, maybe.
Franzen, like a chameleon, propels us forward into the world of Katz,
the rock musician, and the register changes completely. I was very
impressed by that, actually. It doesn't become a better register, it's just completely different. And then again, the narrating voice
develops, evolves, and keeps changing depending on the perspective and
point of view. What a wonderful ear.
He actually did something
similar in one of his previous novels, "The Corrections", where he used the initial part of the
novel almost as an obstacle for the reader, to overcome with a certain effort and then slide
into the rest of it. But the difficult part was much shorter than 200 pages there.
interview with Katz about the state of music is a little masterwork.
It's brilliant and funny. Just like his first interaction with Walter and Lalitha.
writing style is extremely clever, elegant and unsentimental, a little
too cold, mental and cerebral for my personal taste, almost chilling in
his acute, poignant, accurate, objective, hyper-rational observations
and descriptions. More than once, while reading this book, I thought of
that quote by (someone): "If we spent our life constantly looking at
reality the way it actually is, we would go absolutely mad in a very
short time". P.S. I think it's actually a line from Fyodor
Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground: “I swear to you, gentlemen, that
to be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness.”
is a risk inherent in describing everything through words, and
rationalizing reality too much: that you end up missing the point.
Missing the heart, the emotions, the human perspective, what really
matters. Similarly, there is a limit to thinking, beyond which it
becomes just a painful exercise in analysis and dissolution of reality
in smaller and smaller pieces, until you find either sublime madness (as
above) or nothing at all (the terrifying emptiness at the very center
of the onion).
Franzen's ambition is so huge it's childish. He set out to write with a mission, and the mission was to go
straight to the heart of America (Freedom). Sounds like he wants to be a
Great Writer, like Tolstoj or Hugo. Someone who actually changes the
world, someone who has an impact on society. And he does undoubtedly
have an impact, because his books sell zillions of copies, however I'm
afraid to say, it is probably a much less "serious" impact than what he
might think. People read Franzen because they love to read, or because
they just want to be entertained, maybe by something smart with a little
bit of thinking too, but not because they want to change anything, the
world, or (especially!) themselves. Yes, there is always a little seed
that might stay with you, but then even a pop song can leave a seed in
you, or a movie, and today we have just too many freaking seeds to be
properly receptive to any one of them. We just move on to the next one.
As important as it might be, it is all, at the end of the day,
In other words, it seems like Franzen is unable
to apply that immense ability for cold razor-sharp objectivity to
himself - his own role as a writer. I would say: Relax, man! It's just a
book! But of course, that is the deep nature of a very good
writer. You Do Not Relax.
In conclusion, I do not believe this book falls into the soap opera
realm. Freedom deserves more attention. I am a very slow reader, and I
think it was a good thing with this book. No soap opera is as complex,
intelligent, and ambitious as this novel. On the other hand, many novels
would look like soap operas if read at the speed of light.
- an impressive, brilliant, complex, sometimes disturbing, sometimes
funny, extremely well-written novel about the life of an American