Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (a review from halfway through the book)
Your parents they fuck you up they do
Your kids – they get to finish you off
This morning I was halfway through Jonathan Franzen’s novel ‘Freedom’, when the penny dropped. The book is the story of a musician, the couple who are his closest friends, and the couple’s children. According to one of the enthusiastic review quotes on the inside cover it is a ‘great American novel’. According to another, it is an ‘indelible portrait of our times’. Maybe. But first and foremost, I realised as I read it earlier under a threatening sky, the book is a horror story. A tale told to frighten the middle-aged.
Dim the lights and contemplate – if you dare – the rapid erosion of the freedom that you doodled day dreams all over in your youth. Ponder uncomfortably the path dependency of relationships and how this allows time to take the small flaws we all have and use them to pry people apart. Squirm as the author shows how spookily easy it is to ruin your kids, and how it will be easier still for them repay the favour. Good politics won’t save your personal life, nor will being well read. The gym and veganism won’t help either. And love and kindness will just as readily lead your deeper into the woods as show you the way out.
However fiendish the characters are in Stephen King novels, at least they live for the most part in cemeteries, or other dimensions, or cottages out along gravel roads in distant woods. Franzen’s demons, on the other hand, are much closer to home – your partner’s lingering silence at breakfast this morning, the preciousness of your five year old. The haunted houses here are our own.
I stopped regularly reading fiction about five years ago. It wasn’t a principled stand to do with the decline of the modern novel or anything like that; rather I was, I think, simply tired (probably right after reading the God of Small Things) of how cruelly most authors treated their characters. I’m misanthropic enough in my way: I despair of humanity as a whole, am mildly frightened and repelled by strangers and somewhat vexed by the many of the people I know, and yet tell me someone’s story and I can’t help but care about them. Paint it vividly and evocatively and, to be honest, I’m just simply not going to enjoy it when by the final chapter you leave them so broken as to only be able to engage in incest.
I suppose what I should have done when I realised this was research my books a bit before I read them: read only Annie Proulx novels and not her collected short stories, or something like that. But there was a whole heap of non-fiction to read, not to mention the internet, and so I quit.
What about Franzen then, will he lead me back to the world of stories? I’m certainly enjoying devouring a book, having to force myself to put it down, feeling emotionally involved, and possibly learning something at the same time. It’s not a perfect novel, I think, good but not perfect. The characters aren’t always convincing, and I’m not totally sold on the structure. And yet it’s certainly dragged me in.
Ultimately, my fiction reading fate may depend on how many of the main characters get splattered before the sun comes up. If they all end up lifeless husks with their souls sucked out of them then I doubt I’ll be racing to read ‘the Corrections’. On the other hand, if at least a couple manage to emerge into the light of a new day, bent and bloodied, but not broken, then maybe I will.
[Update: Never mind profound questions about the modern novelist, what about the modern reader? Absolutely un-pleasable. No sooner had I got to the end of the book and discovered – to my relief – that the demons are vanquished and that most of the characters live to see the light of day, then by brain kicked in and I’m like hhhmmmm…was pretty, two dimensional, doomed Lalitha anything other than deus ex machina?]