Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Reading "Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen, Pt 4

This may be my final post about the novel in question. Not that I've finished it; I'm only about halfway through but I am considering setting it aside and reading something else. Why? I could say "politics," but that's not really true. Here's the thing: Franzen clearly has some axes to grind with big business, the Republican party and all sorts of modern cultural phenomena. Some reviewers have slammed the book because they don't agree with Franzen's politics and see the entirety of "Freedom" as an attack on the American Right. Those folks are not reviewing the book; they're reacting against Franzen's themes and that, I don't think, is how one reviews literature. So I tell you now that Franzen's politics, or what appear to be his politics from my partial reading of his latest novel, are off the table. Frankly, I agree at least in spirit with what I've read so far. So that's not where this novel fails.

What I find objectionable while reading "Freedom" is the way in which the political references are inserted into the narrative. I have recently encountered an episode where the Richard Katz character is giving an interview (to a college freshman or high school senior--I forget which--who's going to post the interview as an mp3 to the web). In this interview, Katz launches into an extended diatribe against consumer culture and ties it to Republicanism and rich entertainers pretending to be philanthropists. Those sentiments, as I say, are fine by me. But the Richard Katz character has never before in the narrative given us any reason to believe that he is anything but indifferent to culture or politics. He's spent decades in a drug-fueled haze, touring with his little band, living in his crappy New Jersey apartment and focusing his mental efforts on sex, music, and his own happiness (or his own misery, if you like). All of Katz's diatribe about politics is out-of-character. Out-of-character. It feels tacked on, as if Franzen did a revision of the manuscript with the sole intention of finding places where he could shove political slogans and speeches into his characters' mouths. That, Jonathan Franzen, is bad writing, and that is the only sin I hesitate to forgive. You have written badly, and it will take a bit of effort for me to pick up your novel and continue reading. I'm not sure if I want to make that effort, if this sort of bad writing is going to increase in frequency as the novel progresses. You've lost this reader's trust.

So here's the deal. I'm going to read on during my lunch break today, and if you don't misbehave, I'll give you another chance. Otherwise, I have a six-foot tall stack of "to be read" books to which I could turn my attentions.

18 comments:

  1. which is how I felt about MERCY the book by Jodi Picoult. Although she didn't have politics, it was like you said, words inserted that were out of character. I hate that. Makes me wonder if the editor said, "Just put some stuff here and call it good."

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  2. Those kind of passages always smack of bad editing. Either, as Anne says, a bad editor getting some things inserted that should have been left out -- or, alternatively, a bad editor not saying, "Um, Jonathan, you're off the boat here, here, and here."

    Sorry that, Scott. If I'd made it that far, that would be it for me. OOC speeches or rants are on my short list of absolute axes, regardless of whether I agree or disagree with the message. It's not a book at that point; it's an op-ed.

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  3. I don't mind if an author digresses and goes down his own path now and then, talking about whatever pet ideas he has and leaving the story behind for awhile. But in this case, it's not a digression so much as just clumsy ventriloquism.

    Still, I'm giving the book another chance today at lunch. I take no more pride in setting aside a book for a single instance of lack of craft (even one so egregious as this) than I do in cutting someone loose as a friend just because they make a mistake or piss me off once. I spent all that time reading Asimov and Heinlein when I was a kid, and those were a couple of guys who really couldn't write well. So in an effort to turn my back on the idea of the book-as-consumable-good-that-must-satisfy-immediately-and-always-or-else, I'm taking another turn with the novel.

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  4. This is amazing because I had such a similar experience with Freedom. Found the first 100 pages or so intriguing, writing interesting enough to keep me going. Another couple hundred of pages and I felt increasingly annoyed with what I felt was the author's lack of commitment to or real passion for his characters and the plot. A certain view on America and politics was being shoved down my throat and I don't like that in my fiction, even if I happen to agree with a lot of it. Just as importantly, I not only didn't like the characters, but didn't care one way or another what happened to them because they were no longer real to me. I started skimming, just to see if I could pick up steam again. I hate to give up on a book that has been so critically acclaimed, but finally I flipped quickly through huge chunks, jumped to the end, and put it down. It all felt like a waste of my time and, like you, I have literally hundreds of other books I want to read. I ended up resenting the whole experience. Sorry to blather on, but this is the first forum where I felt like I could really vent. And just for the record, I had never read a Franzen before and I went into this really wanting to like the book. Ah, well.

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  5. You're a stronger man than I am, Scott. I don't get attached to a book until I've finished it. It need not satisfy me immediately, but just as I'll turn my head from a painting, I'll turn my head from a book if it fails some basic criteria. *shrug*

    Your dedication to the cause is impressive.

    Hope this one turns around for you.

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  6. Nevets, whenever I begin to struggle with a book, I remember the mighty battle I waged with Melville in the middle of Moby Dick, a book I happily declare to be flawed, uneven, and brilliant. Also, in one way or another, I think every great book is a failure. I can't think of the last time I read something that was both brilliant and perfect. They might be mutually exclusive in my world.

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  7. You're undoubtedly a better reader than I am for it, and I'm sure I've missed some amazing experiences. I don't demand perfection. A little off-kilter, a little unclean is good. That's why live music is often better than recordings. I relate to that.

    But I do have a whole lot of things I want to read, write, and think about, and when I feel that my brain is being abused by a lack of writing fundamentals (characters staying in character is a huge fundamental for me) I have a hard time justifying it to myself.

    I'm not being sarcastic when I say that I believe you're better off for your approach.

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  8. Anon: This is also my first experience with Franzen's writing, and I really wanted to love this book. There are some admirable qualities to Franzen's prose but I think the story is just not that into me, which makes me sad. It's not awful by any means, but it's not great, either. It's okay. And the unvarying okayness is beginning to get to me, I think. I'll see what I think after lunch. And feel free to vent away.

    Nevets: I can't say I'm "better off" for my approach. I know that patience has payed off richly in the past, and some books that I've abandoned briefly have been well worth returning to later. On the other hand, I have attempted The Brothers Karamazov four times without success. Though I read Crime and Punishment in just a couple of days. So go figure. It took me all summer to read Moby Dick. I plan to spend all of this winter with Finnegans Wake.

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  9. Scott, I just finished Freedom yesterday. I was incredibly sick of it by the half way point, and frankly disgusted by the 75% mark, particularly with the Joey POV. He made my skin crawl, but not in a "wow, this is such a realistic character way" but more of a "is a 14 year old boy writing this?" kind of a way. BUT, but: The end. When I read the end, I was glad for the experience, impressed with how much, after abhoring these people, being weary to my bones of them, I was rooting for them. The two in the end. Why, I do not know, but there was, for me, something genius in that effect.

    The politics were not subtle, and I agree about the Katz passage. And I did skim some of that last 3/4, and felt like the whole Patty's journal thing was a trick, until the thing that happened with it happened (trying to avoid spoilers). And then I was scurrying to read parts of it again and thinking that it actually worked.

    Just my two cents.

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  10. Jennifer: I read more at lunch and, after enduring a dozen pages of unsubtle politics, Franzen got back to the real story of Richard, Patty and Walter. I feel like I've passed through a difficult section of a mountain climb but the terrain looks more inviting just ahead. Which is to say, I've decided to keep reading for now. I can live with Franzen's ham-fisted propagandizing as long as he stays with the characters.

    Though I'll admit that I'm feeling more than a little worn down by the experience. When I read Moby Dick or Paradise Lost or even Ulysses, I had a feeling that I was with the authors all the time on what were occasionally rough seas or bumpy roads, but we were in it together and there were little triumphs along the way. I don't feel any of that confraternity with Franzen.

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  11. This is an interesting discussion. The origial post makes me not want to try very hard with Freedom, but then Jennifer makes me curious about it again. I do often wonder, though, if a book that is a struggle to get through but redeems itself in the end is a book worth reading.

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  12. Domey: I'm going to say yes to that question. I feel myself moving ever closer toward rejecting the idea that we are somehow righteous in abandoning art that doesn't constantly entertain us, or that makes us labor here and there. I blame that mindset on the prevailing culture of consumerism, where everything--including art--has become "product" that must instantly gratify us. Okay, rant over.

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  13. As long as we're getting a rant, I'll play a little devil's advocate and suggest that there's equally nothing inherently righteous about plugging away through a piece of art with no pay off, just so we can say we did and can position ourself a hair above the masses... (devil's advocate mode: off)

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  14. Nevets: I agree with you, if people are reading things purely for snob value. I'm just saying that if I'd abandoned ship halfway through Moby Dick, that would have been my loss.

    And of course, not every book works for every reader, and there are any number of books I've put down halfway through.

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  15. It's good to know this. It saves me the trouble of giving it a read. It was already a close call anyway, but I HATE books that do that. I'll continue on with my own enormous TBR pile.

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  16. I agree that there are sloppy parts in the book, but the rant doesn't come out of nowhere. In the Patty memoir, Walter mentions on p. 101 that Richard is "excited" about Margaret Thatcher because "she represents the excesses of capitalism that will inevitably lead to its self-destruction". It's clear from the lyrics of Katz' songs with the Traumatics (TCBY and Insanely Happy) on pp. 143-44 that he is "not indifferent to culture or politics".

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  17. Paul: Just so. Walter mentions Katz' excitement, and there are some song lyrics that are political, but this is the first time that Katz is shown directly to be excited about politics. Which is a structural problem I have with the whole book. The politics seem layered on top of the narrative; they don't seem to come from inside the characters. Even with your examples, I don't find that Franzen has adequately prepared these moments. And also, in my reading at least, none of the characters discuss politics in the same voices they use to discuss anything else. The "Richard Katz" who goes on the rant in the interview is not the same Richard Katz who has taught himself to play banjo at Nameless Lake. Not that people can't be multifaceted, but I just don't buy Franzen's characters as integrated wholes.

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  18. Thanks so much for your thoughts! I thought I was the only one struggling with understanding why this book is so universally acclaimed.

    I just finished it, and posted my jumbled thoughts here: http://bit.ly/hP4qQf

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