Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Reading "Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen

This is not a book review, if that's what you seek. I've been reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom for a couple of days now, and I'm at about page 100. It's a good book and I'm happy to be reading it, but I have noticed some things about Franzen's narrative style that I'd like to think about out loud, as it were.

The first thing that struck me about the writing is the way Franzen chose to tell the story primarily in narrative summary rather than in dramatized scenes. There are--up to page 100 anyway--few actual scenes. Franzen will give a snippet of dialogue or an isolated character action but rarely do you see an event played out for any length of time. Perhaps the story covers such a long stretch of years that this is the most economical way Franzen could find to build his narrative. I don't know. But this technique of continuous summary creates a distance between me as reader and the world of the story. There is no real immediacy, no sense of urgency. This bothers me, but the fabulous writing and the characters more than balance that out.

The next thing that struck me, as I moved into the chapters which comprise Patty's autobiography, is that Patty writes of herself in the third person. This gives rise to some funny moments, but again there's that emotional distance between reader and story. Patty holds her own tale at arm's length and we are also held away. Patty's character is growing on me, but too often it does feel as if I'm being told about Patty by a disinterested-if-amused third party, not by Patty herself. Patty-the-autobiographer's emotions don't really come through on the page. So this is, to me as a writer, a curious choice.

I'll be interested to see how things continue. Possibly Patty's resolve will break down during the course of her autobiography and she'll stop being so distant. I have no idea. I'm still not actually sure what this book is about. I'm on page 100 and I feel like I'm still reading the backstory, the setup. It's an engaging backstory even with my reservations regarding Franzen's narrative techniques, but I still keep expecting the story to fly into action somehow, to get kick-started into a life larger than it has so far.


  1. I admire your persistence. I'm not sure I could have stuck with it.

  2. I got up to about page 50 of Freedom before I decided I wasn't in the mood to read this yet. I had gotten my hopes up because of some comparisons between Franzen and Tolstoy. They may both have a large scope, but I think they approach the technical aspects of their stories very differently. I wasn't in the mood for the summary/distancing that you describe here, Scott. But, yes, the writing was strong.

  3. Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying there is anything bad about Franzen's writing. I am just saying that I find his style to create emotional distance and I'm surprised by it. I'll keep reading it because it's fine writing and the storytelling is otherwise engaging.

  4. Very interesting. I hadn't thought about reading this one but now I'm intrigued.

  5. Lois: Yeah, you should. Don't let the absolutely hideous cover put you off! The more I read of it, the more I like it.

    Some folks are calling "Freedom" a political novel, but I haven't seen that yet (I'm at about page 200 now). The book really seems to be about people making life choices and trying to be happy. I think I'll attempt to write another post about what I think so far. Maybe tomorrow.