Friday, September 24, 2010

Reading "Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen, Pt 3

I promised to talk about why I'm still reading "Freedom" even though I have complained about Franzen's narrative style. Well, the book has plenty going for it:

The characters, times and events are all familiar to anyone in/near middle age in America, so it's easy to engage with the story on that level. I have met people like all of the main characters in real life, and Franzen is talking about the way real people try to navigate through the real world. So that's all good stuff. It's not quite D.H. Lawrence or A.S. Byatt, but it feels true.

There's also the language. Some of Franzen's prose is just plain gorgeous. I give you two examples:

There's a hazardous sadness to the first sounds of someone else's work in the morning; it's as if stillness experiences pain in being broken. The first minute of the workday reminds you of all the other minutes that a day consists of, and it's never a good thing to think of minutes as individuals. Only after other minutes have joined the naked, lonely first minute does the day become more safely integrated in its dayness.


A melodious bird that Walter had despaired of teaching her the proper name of, a veery or a vireo, grew accustomed to her presence and began to sing in a tree directly above her. Its song was like an idee fixe that it couldn't get out of its little head.

Here is Patty talking about herself in the third person. I have some issues with this device of Franzen's, but some of it works:

The only thing that gave her any hope was how well she was concealing her own inner turmoil. She'd been maybe a little abstracted and shaky in the last four days, but infinitely better behaved than she'd been in February. If she herself was managing to keep her dark forces hidden, it stood to reason that Richard might have corresponding dark forces that he was doing just as good a job of hiding. But this was a tiny sliver of hope indeed; it was the way insane people lost in fantasies reasoned.


  1. Glad you're enjoying it, Scott, and I hope many other do, as well, but I'll be honest. To me the prose feels like he's trying too hard. (Which is weird considering the sentence-ending prepositions.)

    I also think 3rd person reflection comes off as narrative explication more than anything.

    *shrug* Ah well, I can't love everything.

  2. Nevets: Well, I'm still willing to call "Freedom" a good book, even if I don't think it's a great book. Not that JF needs my imprimatur to sell a bunch of copies.

    Sometimes I trip on the prepositions at the ends of the sentences here, too. But you know, it's not really a rule in English usage (or it wasn't until that idiot Dryden tried to make it one in the 17th-century and he was basing in on classical Latin, not on actual English usage but I digress into a rant and must stop).

    It's possible that the Patty character would never be able to be honest with herself were she to write in first-person. That's the slack I'm cutting Franzen for now.

  3. Fair points all. I don't always get hung up on the prepositions, but it feels really jarring with all that frill and lace everywhere.

  4. Sometimes in English you have to end sentences with preps if you don't want to sound like an uptight so-and-so. Especially with some verbs like chatters on or even the infamous "put up with" (up and with are actually part of the verb). So I will always say, "That is something I won't put up with" and never "That is something up with which I will not put."

    I like the way Franzen puts things and flow of his prose (mostly), but I'm not sure how long it would take me to get through his book. I'm afraid I'd lose interest part way through unless the story is compelling.

  5. Lois: The story's focus has shifted from the Patty character's third-person autobiography, to the Richard character, in a true 3rd-person narrative. The story's sort of come suddenly alive, which is nice.

    In one of Byatt's novels, she has a character say, "That is something up with which I will not put."

    I'm realizing while writing these posts about "Freedom" that I don't really know how to write about books. About which, huh. It's harder than it looks. As are most things.

  6. Lois, I definitely agree that sometimes the flow is terrible if you take that rule too seriously. (I think this is also the case with split infinitives.) The example you give (which is often the butt of jokes) is already an exception for a lot of people.

    Most rule monkeys I know (including me) consider "put up" a set phrase not the verb + preposition or verb + adverb construction from which it was derived. Therefore, "That is something with which I will not put up," would be okay.

    But at any rate, I give a lot of liberal license for those rules in the writing of fiction.

    I simply find the casual expressions a little jarring in the context of all that heavy, formal metaphor around them.

    And I also fully acknowledge that these are really matters of taste more than they are of craft, which is why I'm perfectly glad Scott and countless others enjoy it. More power to them.

  7. These are some beautiful quotes. I really need to get a copy of this novel ASAP.

  8. Ms. Smith, thanks for dropping by! Stephen Elliot wrote on the Daily Rumpus that Franzen told him (is this heresay enough yet?) he's becoming more concerned with story and is spending less time rewriting his sentences. Possibly Freedom is going to be the last novel in which Franzen writes out of such pure pleasure in language, and that would be a real shame.