Hello, all! Here’s to the new year, and the best of intentions.
I read Jonathan Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’ two years ago, and thought it was worthwhile enough to pick up ‘Freedom’ and give it a go. This one was likewise a pretty smooth read — Franzen has a way with description that sort of sucks you in. The book wasn’t quite to my liking, though, and parts of it left a bitter taste in my mouth.
The book centers around Patty, Walter, Richard, and Joey — all compelling people with their own motivations and values systems who are each especially good at making life absolutely miserable for one another, and aren’t particularly likable people. I wanted to slap all of them repeatedly.
Briefly, Walter (nerdy Good Guy) and Richard (womanizing musician) were roommates in college who were supposedly good friends with one another. Patty was a basketball player who lusted after Richard, but married Walter, because Walter loved her and was a Good Guy. They ended up having two kids, both of whom grew up to hate them. Joey, their son, ends up moving out when he’s sixteen and shacking up with his girlfriend’s family. Most of the story is focused on the lives of Patty, Walter, and Richard as middle-aged adults, struggling with the ‘generativity vs. stagnation’ stage of their lifespan development, with occasional forays into youthful Joey’s morally depraved life of sex, greed, and sex.
The first thing I had to sort through was how Franzen wrote his female characters. Several parts of this are told in Patty’s voice, and although I did identify with her description of how it felt to get wrapped up in the all-consuming life of college athletics, I found her as a character to be really deeply frustrating. Passive, self-deprecating, Maker of Bad Decisions — it’s hard for me to tell whether Franzen painted a picture that was just too close to reality that it was uncomfortable to read, or that he just didn’t give Patty enough to work with. It was also mystifying to me what the men around her saw in her — Walter was head over heels for her, and Richard returned her lust, but because Patty’s voice was so self-pitying, there wasn’t any hint as to why. Although she went through an extensive autobiographical treatment of her own life, I still found it hard to understand her motivations. The other women were much less filled out — Connie, Joey’s girlfriend, Jenna, the girl Joey wants to sleep with, and Lalitha, Walter’s employee, mainly served as objects of lust for the male characters. Connie in particular resembled a doormat with sexual orifices, and I found her interactions with Joey to be distasteful and uncomfortable.
The second thing I took issue with was Walter’s attempt to make a deal with the devil in the name of environmentalism (he works for a foundation to preserve a bird species, and appears to be passionate about the environment). His genius plan is to sell land to coal companies, let them engage in Mountain Top Removal mining, and then (magically) “properly reclaim the land” as a nature preserve. I spent a lot of this part of the book saying “IT DOESN’T WORK LIKE THAT”, and although I could see what Franzen was trying to do — show how someone with good intentions can go down a rabbit hole of corruption — the Bad Science and glazed over explanations about hypothetical reclamation of MTR (and presumable benefits to the environment) really hurt my brain. I’ve lived in Kentucky, and know people who’ve been personally impacted by Mountain Top Removal mining, and it’s a real and awful issue that could have had a more thorough treatment.
This book made me think, it frustrated me, and it was unpleasant at times, but it was interesting enough to keep me going, and it had a pretty decent ending.