Sunday, 28 November 2010

Spectacular: Review of Freedom by Franzen

“I don’t know how to live” so says Walter at a pivotal moment in Franzen’s work. It’s a fair commentary on life and freedom but I would now say that a central element of anyone’s life should be reading this book.
I was always worried that when Franzen followed the Corrections with such effective and brilliant non-fiction in his memoirs and essays that we would never see a substantial work of fiction from him again. Perhaps he thought he had done all he could in the genre but I was well off the mark.
Focused on a married couple who met at college, Walter and Patty, and thirty years of their lives: it initially starts like a chamber piece of those two rather than the full symphony that the Corrections represented of pre- millennial America. But this is part of the work’s amazing narrative structure.
It starts and finishes with outsiders, neighbours, looking in at the couple and judging them: only a partial picture is revealed. Then it pulls out like a camera shot to reveal the bigger context in which Walter and Patty. This is done using a variety of methods – excerpts of one of the character’s auto-biography, chapters written from the perspective of very different people central to the two of them. It is a powerful method of structure because it has a variety of “unreliable narrators” and you judge others and them as you read. This however get s turned on its head as you read another perspective and you see that your own judgements were misplaced and you think again about how you have looked at them.
A strong character (in every sense) in the work is provided by Richard Katz – Walter’s best friend – an aging Lothario by the end but a young one to start with ! rock star who is both shallow and deep in equal measures. He does not believe he is free but is lead by his groin into most decisions. Perhaps not unsurprisingly there is a long passage in the final chapter regarding the destructive nature of domestic cats on bird-life in the states. Katz has his own appetite for destruction but also building.
For that is another trait of the work – it integrates non-fiction elements throughout on the environment, Iraq, modern music, birds (Franzen’s own obsession) reflective of his recent work. Sometimes this slightly jars as for example when they discuss a method of brutal mining over 10 pages or so which Walter an Envrionmental lawyer has to promote. I also had a sense of work that Franzen had read before writing this work – notably The Shock Doctrine and I think Collapse by Jared Diamond.
Diamond’s seminal work on the collapse of untrammeled human societies throughout history has an introduction with almost identical tensions raised by Walter in his struggle to tackle the immanent environmental disaster of modern capitalism by doing deals with those very capitalist billionaires. Diamond himself made such compromises which he describes. I am not convinced that it is the right thing to do – and neither ultimately is Walter as it in part leads to his unraveling.
But that is only one dimension of the book it is also starkly, brutally at times, intimate unpicking the nature of family, friends, parenting, unhappiness, betrayal and redemption. It does this with insight and power which is pretty unequalled by any other current writer of fiction. When horrible things happen in this work which they do they are almost unreadable because you feel almost personally entwined with them. After one passage I had to stop reading for a couple of days.
I also like the fact that the central section is labeled 2004 – a key year in recent American history. The fairly comfortable re-election of W Bush to the horror of the left, the chaos in Iraq at its height, Fallujah, post- 911 tensions, environmental destruction being re-discovered as a reality – also the year that the disintegration of Walter and Patty’s life comes to a critical point. There are other historical periods outlined – notably the late 70s when Richard, Patty and Walter are at college and a small taste of post-Obama America. In contrast to the Corrections there is very American context to the work – one (fairly humourous) trip to Latin America apart this is an internal work on America.
And of course the title – its power lies in that you keep referring back to it whenever the concept is mentioned in the work. When Patty is dealing with one of her own personal crisis she sees a sign at her daughter’s college: “Use well thy freedom”. Patty and Walter’s son Joey gets involved in a way with the neo-con movement and their bastardised use of the word. Walter’s campaign against human reproduction seeks to limit freedom for the good of all. In a sense, everyone is cursed with their freedom and the sadness is brings.
I am only really scraping the surface here of the work. There is so much humour, observation, very sad and devastating passages that it cannot be replicated. The ending and writing for the last 50 pages and so also needs to be read. It literally is indispensible.