Saturday, July 18, 2015

Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

FreedomMr 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.  

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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.

The 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.

Franzen's 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.”

There 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, entertainment.

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.

Overall - an impressive, brilliant, complex, sometimes disturbing, sometimes funny, extremely well-written novel about the life of an American couple.

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