Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen, the darling of American literary circles, published his novel FREEDOM a year and a half ago. I didn't read it then, because I hadn't much liked his previous book, THE CORRECTIONS. That book's prose struck me as first lush and rich, and later as too rich, like being forced to consume dish after dish of baklava. Also, I found the characters pretty unlikeable.

None of this is true of FREEDOM. Franzen has restrained his prose, and his attitude toward his characters has changed. In THE CORRECTIONS he seemed to be examining them under a microscope, in order to watch them squirm in close-up. FREEDOM is warmer, with more empathy for every member of the Berglund family, all of whom (except one) possess a large, very human capacity to make wrong decisions as they try to balance passion, sense, and the reactions of their neighbors and relatives. There is a lot of sheer pain on display here, but also redemption. And in the end the book affirms the power of love -- even tattered, much-abused, time-worn love.

Frantzen also preserves what I thought of as a strength in THE CORRECTIONS: a concern for the world beyond the family. Walter Berglund is concerned with preserving endangered species (sort of). Joey Berglund gets involved in civilian contracts for the war effort in Iraq. The national economy goes bad, with real effects on everybody. Social mores change. Rock stars age, and their music, once cutting edge, becomes "old-fashioned." The great Victorian novels often covered decades of their protagonists' lives, but contemporary literature has tended more to focus on short term, within a closed circle. Franzen opens up the novel again.

In short, I recommend this book. Complex people in complex situations, many of which the characters often manage to make worse -- but sometimes better. Just like real people.

1 comment:

Jojo P. said...

Franzen explains in one of the more profound passages in his brilliant novel Freedom.