Thursday, February 3, 2011

Freedom - Jonathan Franzen (Audio)




OK, I am finally biting the bullet. I am FORCING myself to sit down and write something about this book. Because sometimes books are too big for words. They cover too much territory, too much human emotion, too much ugliness, too many messages, to really get the point across.

Years ago, I read The Corrections. A friend loaned it to me, stating that he "couldn't get through it, so good luck". Just to prove my super-woman tenacity, I slogged through it. I hated it. The characters were miserable and obnoxious. Then I finished it. Then I decided I really did like it.

So when Freedom was released, I was mildly interested. But it was long, and Oprah endorsed it, everybody and their brother was talking about it, and when my book club discussed reading it, I voted NO. I can be bitchy that way. But then there was a mix-up, and somehow it was published in our country club newsletter that we were reading Freedom for February, and our hand was forced. Now my dander was really up. OK FINE! IF I HAVE TO! I embarked on 19 discs of audio.

Synopsis: At the heart of the novel is the seemingly All-American Berglund family...Walter and Patty, and their two kids Joey and Jessica, living in a big house in St. Paul MN. Walter is the do-gooder, environmental-loving lawyer, Patty the pretty, athletic stay-at-home mom, with two perfect over-achieving children. At the beginning of the story, we get an outsider's perspective of the family from a few jealous neighbors' narratives, then we dive in - hold your breath! It's deep and murky! Walter, Patty and Joey (and a few other main characters) all take turns narrating personal thoughts and events in their past, what made them the people they are, and the nitty gritty of what is really happening in their twisted, miserable lives. Drugs and alcohol abuse, manipulation, adultery, kinky sex, lying, cheating, stealing, rape, and any other type of depravity you can think of. What this all amounts to is a thorough character study on each narrator, from childhood on. So thorough, you know it like your own story after it is all over and done with. And what we learn isn't necessarily likable, but human and real and exposed.

But there is so much more than "just" family dysfunction (that is a real big fat juicy "just"). Big issues such as over-population and the pressure on finite resources, raping our natural environment for political gain, the ethical dilemmas of capitalism in Iraq, and the rapid-fire information overload and instantaneous gratification that our culture has become. For a side tour, Franzen delves into the business of rock 'n roll, and liberally peppers his prose with lots of pop culture, showing us he is hip to Bright Eyes and Donnie Darko. It seems that Franzen has alot on his mind, and he has thrown it all at us. Whether it was intended to hit us in the head and incite an epiphany, or simply draw blood, I'm not sure.

My thoughts: Most of humanity fell in love with this book, but I was not one of them. I was highly entertained, in a way that it is entertaining to watch the freakshows that go on Doctor Phil and have their frailties laid out for all to see. The characters in this book are not caricatures. They feel as real as you or I. But they are damaged, unhappy people, angry at each other, life and society in general. Franzen's prose also comes across as sarcastic and generally negative. Then there is all that sex, which I thought added nothing but a layer of skeez. As easy as it was to listen to all of this, I often felt like I needed to take a shower (no, I didn't need a cold shower, I just needed to rid myself of the mental slime).

But then, after 18 discs of rolling around in the muck, getting it in my ears and eyes and mouth, it was like the whole book took a Prozac, and for the last disc, the plot gently floated in a dreamy fog off stage left. OK, well, that is nice. But it was a confusing shift in mood, and it left me unsettled. You mean they didn't all self-destruct in the end? I kinda wanted to see them all locked up in a room together to see who would come out alive.

As grumpy as this all sounds, I tip my hat to Franzen and all of his cleverness. The theme of "freedom" is deftly woven into every nook and cranny. Whether it is freedom from the confines of marriage and kids, freedom of expression, freedom from parental control, or freedom of songbirds to exist without the fear of being eaten by kitty cats. In the search for the ever-alluring freedom, however, the characters find that perhaps it isn't all its cracked up to be, or even that its existence is just an illusion.
As brilliant as Franzen may be, however, I thought it was a shame he wasted it on such misery. I likened it to Picasso drawing cheesy charicatures at a street fair, or painting women's boobs at a strip club.

A word about the audio production: Whatever my gripes for the book, the narrator, David LeDoux, was spectacular. David is a new-to-me voice, but in a quick glance, I see he has also narrated "Water For Elephants" by Sarah Gruen and "Shiver" by Maggie Stiefvater, just to name a couple. His voice was authentic and unforced, and captured nuances of the various personalities of the characters perfectly. This is a narrator I'd listen to again without hesitation.

Opinions from the Heathrow Literary Society: We had eleven member attend this meeting, and two people admitted to liking it. One member said she liked it fine until she saw interviews with Franzen, and then was turned off. One member said there was nothing redeeming in this book whatsoever, and her husband, who had to endure the audiobook with her on a trip, thought she was insane for finishing it. The rest of us didn't feel it was worth the effort, and would not recommend the book. We decided that Franzen is probably not a very happy person. On the bright side, it was probably the liviest discussions yet.


3 out of 5 stars



32 comments:

C.B. James said...

I'm not reading this book. It's not your fault, I made up my mind a long time ago. I think back when the author refused to allow The Corrections to be an Oprah book. I don't any great passion for Oprah; it just struck me as a vain thing to do.

If I were an author, I would allow Oprah to select my book.

irisonbooks said...

Heh, it somehow cheers me to see this book get a review that says it is not-so-great :)

farmlanebooks said...

LOL! I love this review! I haven't been tempted to read it yet and your review confirms many of my fears. It is good I haven't got a book group forcing me to read things I don't want to read (she says trying to find some tiny reason not to be jealous of your fantastic one ;-) )

Julie P. said...

Hmmmm... the dilemma. I had a similar response as you did to THE CORRECTIONS. Not sure I want to read this one though.

JoAnn said...

You know, this was one of my favorite books last year and I STILL haven't written about it! You're right in saying that sometime a book is just too big for words. There were times when I read a sentence 2 or 3 times and marveled at Franzen's ability to put words together.... and other times I couldn't believe I was still reading about those awful people.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I am SO glad you read this for me! :--)

Zibilee said...

I also fell into the hype and bought the book several weeks ago. I have read so many differing things, and though some aspects intrigue me, there are parts that I am already dreading. A few of the people I have spoken to feel that the book really redeemed itself at the end, and that gives me pause and hope, but overall, I am now not sure what to make of it. I guess I am just going to have to make time to read it and find out!

Teacher/Learner said...

I also found the prose to be negative & condescending. Franzen is obviously sharp & uber-intelligent but he doesn't need to rub it in. Many writers are equally or even sharper than him & don't lash out like he does. Like The Corrections (which I actually finished because I had to for a course), the characters were so unlikeable that I was turned off. I wonder if the audiobook experience is more tolerable than reading the words off the pages...

Kay said...

I agree with Rhapsody Jill - so glad you read this for me and told me all about and maybe I won't need to read it now. Yea, one book crossed off the list!!

marthalama said...

You know, there's been something about this book I've wanted to avoid. I remember reading The Corrections and I felt very similar to you. Though I will say it was a tentative like. I could see what all the hub bub was about it just wasn't the book for me. When I started reading about Freedom I just had no desire to read it. I appreciate your review because I've been thinking "what's wrong with me" that I don't want to read this. Now, I don't feel as bad about it. Maybe someday I'll get around to it. Just not anytime soon. So, thanks for reading it for me.

ds said...

I was given a copy of The Corrections when it was the 'it' book. I read it. I loathed it, except for one small section where he gets inside--truly inside--the father's head and shows how powerful, poignant and even beautiful his writing could be if he were to allow it. (Later, I read an article by Franzen in a Famous Magazine that explained why that passage was so powerful)
But I truly believe the man is incapable of empathy--he doesn't like his characters, so neither do we. Teacher/Learner has it right, I think.
So do you. I'm glad you listened to this one--your review is terrific! But I won't be reading the book.

Trisha said...

I still haven't read Franzen and I'm not sure when I'll have the energy to pick him up and try him out. :)

bermudaonion said...

I wasn't a fan of The Corrections, so I was on the fence on this one. I won the audio book on Twitter, so plan to give it a try, but I'm not sure it's for me. Isn't it funny how books you don't care for end up being so great for discussions?

Melissa M said...

I have a copy of Corrections somewhere in my house and you just convinced me it needs to be added to my 'donate' box. One more book out of my house!

Alyce said...

I don't think I'm willing to put myself through reading this just for a lively discussion. I have read a lot of positive reviews though, from people who have liked it once they finished it. I just don't know if I'm willing to sit through all of the bad things.

Congrats on finishing it for your book club. :) I'm not sure I would have had a positive attitude about the mix-up.

heidenkind said...

Wow, this review wound up in a very unexpected place! I thought for sure you would say you wound up loving the book.

Definitely going to stay far, far away from this one.

caite said...

No, I think I will be skipping this one.
Hey, but like you said, at least it led to a lively discussion!

Darlene said...

I've heard such mixed reviews for this book and now I see you didn't like it. I unfortunately went out and bought it a while back. I haven't read it yet but I'm not in any real hurry anyway.

Jenny said...

This is such an interesting and thorough review! I am trudging through still. I like it and don't at the same time. Franzen is definitely insightful and has lots of observations of people. I agree that the characters felt very real.

Avid Reader said...

I'm really glad to read your review of this. I read The Corrections last year and hated it for many of the reasons you mentioned. I been on the fence about this one. There's so much hype, but at the same time I have no desire to read it. Your review gave me the confirmation I was looking forward. It sounds like more of the same, self-involved characters that I want to smack!

Ti said...

Why is he so well received by some? I really don't get it. I didn't care for his other book at all (it was a DNF)so when this one hit the streets, I turned my nose up at it.

Plus, I really don't enjoy reading overly hyped books because they almost always disappoint in some way.

I don't even see that the critics love it all that much, so what's the draw??

John Braine said...

Woah! I knew there would be a lot of comments on this one. I really liked it (audio version too) but then I like a good dose of authentic misery!
http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/126924637

Carrie K. said...

I read 30 pages of The Corrections once - ugh. After reading your review, I can tell this one isn't any more my type than that one was.

Amy said...

I loved your review, Sandy! This book sounds entertaining, a bit "everything bu the kitchen sink" but I'm intrigued partly by the variety of opinions. I'll eventually read the book but I'm not in any rush. I have no problem admitting I really liked The Corrections but Franzen's doesn't come close to making my list of favorite authors!

Thank you!
~ Amy

Iliana said...

This is a long book isn't it? Otherwise how could he pack all that in one book! I don't know sometimes those books that try to cram so much into one novel really just don't work for me.

I actually do want to read it which is weird being that it's all over the place. Usually that puts me off for a good while until all the hype dies down but I guess I just want to see what all the fuss is about. Not rushing off to read it though even though I really did enjoy your review :)

Jenners said...

I've been dying to see what you would say about this book!! I'm with you .. it is very difficult to capture everything that goes on in this book. And I agree with you that it doesn't hold a very pretty picture up to humanity. And I agree with you that Franzen is probably not the happiest person in the world. All that said, I ended up loving this book in the weirdest way. I'm sure if people read your review and my review side-by-side, they'd probably not KNOW what to think ... I think it is definitely a polarizing book. Great review ... I always love reading your stuff when you are passionate ... even about a "3 star" book!

Bybee said...

My book group is doing Freedom for our Feb. 27 meeting. I haven't cracked it open yet...feel shy of it since I dnf'd The Corrections.

Beth F said...

Fabulous review -- I haven't been tempted to read this one at all. Just doesn't seem appealing to me.

Marie said...

Count me as one more person who hated The Corrections (actually I quit halfway through because I thought Franzen was an arrogant asshole writer, not to mention his Oprah snub). I have not been planning to read Freedom, so I'm glad that you did and convinced me to stay away. The only thing that would make me read it is if it were a book group selection...in which case I would give it a try, since the purpose of book groups is to get us out of our comfort zone.

Thanks for your great review!

Kathleen said...

I was one of those bandwagon people who rushed out to buy this one only to have it gather dust on my shelf ever since. We usually have similar taste in books so I'm not feeling like I need to move it up the priority list after your review.

Alice Teh said...

I don't think I'll be reading this. Sounds like too much to handle. I did love reading your introduction before you dived into the review. I like your bitchiness. LOL!

Melissa said...

You nailed it with this one, Sandy. It's possible I might just trash my review and point my readers to your post because I agree with every single word you wrote.