Thursday December 2nd, 2010

Reading Freedom: Pages 1-187

freedomcoverI’ve finally taken the plunge into Freedom, and since every magazine, newspaper, blog, wire service, and children’s lemonade stand has reviewed it already, I figured I would blog about it in pieces rather than offer a more formal review. I was partly inspired to tackle it now because the most recent issue of n+1 offers reactions to the novel by four of the magazine’s editors, and I’m interested to read those after finishing the book.

I’m through the first 187 pages, a section called “Good Neighbors.” (I’m actually through more than that, but for the purposes of this post, let’s pretend.) So far, so . . . not bad. No major hiccups of forced social relevance, which more than anything else ruined The Corrections. (You don’t need reminding, but just in case: the sudden prolonged rants about the pharmaceutical industry, everything about Lithuania and the Internet, etc.)

A very quick plot synopsis for those who need it: Walter and Patty Berglund live in St. Paul, Minnesota, with their two teenage children, Joey and Jessica. This first section details their lives together (including Patty’s almost obsessive relationship with her son, which is more insisted upon by Franzen than actually demonstrated), and flashes back to Walter and Patty’s time in college, when she was a standout basketball player and he was the nerdy friend of Richard Katz, an edgy and alluring musician who looks, we’re told, like Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Through nearly 200 pages, I haven’t underlined or otherwise noted a single sentence or passage that I would want to return to or share with someone. Perhaps this is an old-fashioned desire, but it’s one I feel strongly while reading. And it’s not to say Franzen is a bad writer — this first section, like everything else I’ve ever read by him, went down quite smoothly. It’s just that his prose is not particularly stylish or profound. I felt a similar lack in The Corrections, though it seems even more pronounced so far in Freedom.

There’s also an odd decision in this first section. The great majority of it is offered in the form of an autobiography that Patty is writing: “(Composed at Her Therapist’s Suggestion).” Others have noted that Patty writes in a way the actual character of Patty almost certainly wouldn’t, and that’s what I expected would annoy me about this section. And it did, a little. The reason it didn’t annoy me more is because it’s so easy to forget the conceit and just read her sections as more all-seeing narrator. For one thing, Patty never refers to herself in the first person: “The regrettable truth is that Patty had soon come to find sex sort of boring and pointless — the same old sameness — and to do it mostly for Walter’s sake.”

And in addition to writing in certain specific ways that are Franzen-like, her entire approach to viewing her life is much broader, more psychologically probing of herself and others, than almost any normal person would be in such an exercise. She’s writing like a novelist, which is a slightly different complaint than saying she’s writing like a very good writer. So my annoyance was not with her voice itself, but with the very decision to say it’s her voice — if the section is in third person, and it’s focusing on several characters through the perspective of the book’s ostensible protagonist to this point, why even roll out the gimmick in the first place? Perhaps this will be answered later, but for now it’s a mystery.

I don’t mean to sound so sour about this first section. It wasn’t earth-shattering (by a long shot), but it has me eager to continue, with hopes of finding out what the fuss is about.