Freedom. The title puzzled me at first, I thought it sounded a bit too general, but what I'd not taken into account was the significance of "freedom" to Americans over the past decade. Once I'd reminded myself of the Fight For Freedom, the renaming of French Fries as Freedom Fries (in response to French opposition to an invasion of Iraq), and all those Freedom first soundbites that sail out of the media and hit us square between the eyes a gazillion times a day: well then I realised why Franzen wanted it as his title and as his central theme. Freedom: because why would you write about anything else?
Especially as one person's freedom may not be another's. When you get down to it, isn't freedom just another word for conflict? Go ask the fellas in the Green Zone if you're not sure.
Iraq, 9/11, the Clinton-Gore-Bush years, act as a backdrop to this most American of family sagas. It's a book I think you need to swallow whole. If you drag out the experience you'll lose the subtleties that Franzen throws up in the way he manipulates chronology. The book is told from various POV: first we have, in the first/third person an autobiography by Patty, Mistakes Were Made, an awkward bit of prose that reads as it should, a little amateurishly. And yet it has a great deal of power. We learn that Patty feels let down by her parents: East Coast Liberals who can't come to terms with their eldest daughter's supposed ordinariness. Actually she is a fantastic athlete and basketball player, but this doesn't register for them. When she is raped, they place political and social concerns over her wellbeing and advise her to forget about it and move on. She does move on: and moves away from her family, cutting them out of her life, eventually, for decades.
Patty's husband, Walter, her son, Joey, and her sometime lover (and Walter's best friend) Richard Katz, take up the other POVs.
Joey kicks off as a pretty disgusting character: an entirely self involved teen, prematurely sexually active and obsessed with money and 'getting on'.
He is the opposite of Walter, a selfless environmentalist (lawyer by training) who has supported Patty's desire to be a fulltime mum and homemaker but who is repaid with her negiligence and coldness towards him.
Katz is a rock musician who becomes a major star; he lives entirely in the present and seems to be entirely governed by his desire for women and his desire to contradict anyone who appears to be in authority.
The book charts the breakdown of Walter and Patty's marriage, the coming of age of Joey and, to some extent, the coming of age of Richard. It is a book of huge transformation (don't let anyone tell you that, because it is largely a domestic drama, that 'nothing much happens'). I found it in places extremely moving and while there were passages that left me a little frustrated (Walter's bird thing: pretty boring if you ask me) I grew to think that Franzen was correct to include them. I felt almost as if the fact he was boring us, just a little bit, was forcing us to consider just how worthy and serious Walter was. Walter really got the detail: to understand that we had to be told the detail too.
Freedom has been hailed as a masterpiece: and you know, perhaps it is. Time will tell whether or not this book will pass into the canon. But if I was a betting man I might put a flutter on it.
Franzen is - and this surprised me, Freedom being the first of his books I've read - a great story teller. He really knows how to weave his characters around events. Not only is he the master of the time line, I even managed to read his sex scenes without cringing. A Literary Novelist who can write Good Sex? Forget the Pulitzer, that's a title that's really worth having.
I was intrigued by the age politics in the book. This is very much a 40-something's novel. Teens and early twenties are described almost as if they are another species. While Patty is reading War and Peace her son is texting and having sex with the neighbour's kid. Youngsters get a really bad rap - at the start of the novel. By the time the story has run its course you feel that Patty, Walter and perhaps even the author have come to terms with youth: has seen them for what they are: younger more energetic versions of ourselves, who don't know quite as much.
Freedom got a lot of hype, but what drew me to read it was an Time interview with Franzen. He came across as incredibly serious and devoted to his craft and I thought, if he has spent time writing this book, it's bound to be worth reading.