Straight From The Store Shelf/Now My Shelf: Freedom Continued

Now, Freedom (continued):

Spoilers Likely.

The novel is expansive, at 562 pages. I have the hardcover. It’s heavy. Yet it convinced me to carry it everywhere, including on a bike-camping trip last week (two weeks ago. That’s embarrassing. I started this post a week ago) where it took up as much room as my suitcase (if only I could take a suitcase bike camping. I mean sleeping bag), so it can’t be all bad, can it?

I liked the book. I might have even loved it, if the beginning had had its way. Throughout the middle, I wasn’t as pleased. In fact, I had forgotten how much I did like it at the beginning until I was rereading a facebook message I sent to a friend, back when I had just started the book, and I said I loved it.

I loved the beginning. From the first sentence (which I won’t do you or Franzen the injustice or including here) until at least the end of the first section, I thought that Franzen was really doing something great. He creates a picture of contemporary life among the “urban gentry” (p. 3) that is over the top yet with the end result of feeling true to life. Walter and Patty seemed so true to me (not real, but true), that they reminded me of a couple on my morning bus ride to work. For a while, I couldn’t not think of the bus couple as Walter and Patty. One day, sitting at the back of the crowded bus, I found myself sitting next to the man of the bus couple, and actually thinking to myself, “My my, I’m sitting next to Walter.”

As someone who has lived in cities for the past several years, I found the page of questions on page 4 to be both familiar and well-formed. A page of “life skills” and “contemporary questions” (p. 4) that are banal and necessary and serious and all-consuming for people that I have known at various times. Like “how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture.” “What about those cloth diapers? … Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? … How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? … Was it better to offer panhandlers food, or nothing?” (p. 4). (They go on. I really think this passage is brilliant. Do check it out). They are questions that make life seem absolutely ridiculous, and yet are representative of the life we live. And want to live.

These are the kinds of questions that concern Patty and Walter Berglund and their neighbours. To at least one neighbour, “the Berglunds were the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege” (p. 7). It is passages like these that I love about this book. Sentences where Franzen captures the condition of contemporary life unexpectedly, quickly, shrewdly. In one line, life seems a little sharper for me, a little less serious, less soul-shattering. It is these sentences that are nailed into the rest of the book, holding it together.

After the first section, I had decidedly mixed feelings. There is a rather large section designed to be an autobiography written by Patty as part of a therapy exercise. I liked it and didn’t like it. It was intelligent and interesting, yet as others have pointed out, maybe a little too intelligent, and a little too like the voice of the rest of the book. (But then, I could argue back at myself, I have read many epistolary works that grated in the lack of variance of voice—are the works poorly written, or is it just a symptom of the genre? I don’t know).

I was bored when the novel veered into politics—in the sections concerning Walter and Lalitha and their Cerulean Mountain Trust. I lost sympathy and interest for the characters, and indeed the whole Berglund family, when Walter chose Lalitha over Patty. I didn’t care too terribly much to read the details of Joey and Jessica’s adult lives. And yet, those sections comprised much of the novel. So why did I like it as much as I did? I don’t know.

By the end, I was ready to be done the book (feeling a little of the bloat that, thankfully, did not go unnoticed by others). By the middle, I had been ready to be done the book, but then was caught up again by various shining bits (Walter’s reunion with his brother, who turns out to exhibit no “memory of his and Walter’s enmity” (p. 503). More reunions, more realizations, some hermitage, some saving from hermitage, some saving from death-by-freezing, some new neighbours, and even a mixed tape (i.e., CD of original music. In the grand tradition of mixed tapes in books and film, whether with the higher art of original music or no, one cannot deny the power of a mixed tape).

I balked when injections of overly casual diction ruined otherwise beautiful sections (again, see Walter reunion with his brother, p. 503). I stalled during injections of politics and lecture. I paused over Patty’s Franzenesque voice. And yet, I still liked the book. I liked it more than The Corrections, which I can’t remember enough about to write more than this one sentence about it (the book itself, that is; I’m not even going to broach the Oprah thing). Okay, broached, back to Freedom:

I guess, in the end (and in the beginning), when the Berglunds have neighbours they’re better people, and their book is better too.

(I think there’s actually much more to it than that, but once again, it’s bed time for me.)

Sweet dreams, book friends.

And, if you’re not sleepy yet: please, by all means, check out more of the conversation (or, better yet, get off the internet and go read a book! I once read something about screens providing way too much stimulus before bed, and that reading online is no substitute for the page when it comes to trying to achieve the ever elusive sleep). But in case there are no books in your house, here, links:
Kerry Clare at Pickle Me This
Jessa Crispin at The Smart Set
Sam Tanenhaus at The New York Times
Michiko Kakutani at The New York Times
Sam Anderson at New York Magazine

And so many more, dear friends. Go, go read!

“How can you sleep with the light on in your head?”

–Martin Tielli

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