I didn't buy Jonathan's Franzen's Freedom because of some spat this writer apparently had with Oprah. Nor did I buy it because, according to rumors, President Obama was so eager to read it that he rushed to the publishing house to get an advance copy. I also did not buy it because of the comparisons many readers and critics have made between Franzen and Philip Roth. I bought the book simply because of its length. As I mentioned before, I cannot resist a novel that is over 500 pages long, so I did not resist this one.
I want to begin this review of Freedom: A Novel by putting to rest the perennial questions of whether Franzen is "the new Philip Roth" and whether this is "the next great American novel." My answers are: no he isn't and no it isn't. This is a very good book, I have enjoyed it thoroughly. This is one of those books that preclude you from doing anything else until you finish it. It is, however, not a work of art. It is great entertainment that has nothing to do with literature. Now, whenever I say things like that, people interpret them as an attempt to denigrate a novel. They believe that entertainment is some kind of a lower-quality art. This cannot be further from the truth. Art and entertainment are things of a completely different order, like a star and a steak, a river and a song. They cannot be placed into the hierarchy of better vs worse because they don't belong in the same category of phenomena and do not serve the same purpose.
There are two main characteristics that place Freedom: A Novel into the category of entertainment rather than art. One is the author's use of artistic means, in this case, the language. Franzen has an unfortunate tendency to find a cliche he really likes and then reiterate it to death. To give an example, he comes up (pun intended) with the following metaphor that has been done to death long before Franzen chanced upon it: "His prophetic dick, his divining rod." Then, the author keeps returning to this tired image, as if he feared that the readers missed it the first 15 times he brought it up (pun intended, once again.) Even if he were the first writer ever to create this metaphor (which he is not by far), this insistence on such a clumsy image is similar to Dr. Phil's repeated use of his trademark cliches: "Who's gonna buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?", "Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?", etc.
Franzen also has trouble avoiding pomposity. The narrative flow of Freedom: A Novel is often interrupted by statements whose grandiloquence is completely out of sync with the tone of the scene. For instance, the author spends half the novel ridiculing a really horrible marriage of two completely mismatched people. The narrator pokes vicious fun at their pathetic attempts at a sex life: "Craving sex with her mate was one of the things (OK, the main thing) she’d given up in exchange for all the good things in their life together" and "the weekly thirty minutes of sexual stress was a chronic but low-grade discomfort, like the humidity in Florida." This is beautifully said and very funny, as I'm sure everybody will agree. Then, Franzen has to go and spoil this verbal beauty by slipping into annoying and completely misplaced pomposity. After sex, these same two people "lay and held each other in the quiet majesty of long marriage." Once again, this reminds me of Dr. Phil. He would bring some really horrible parent to his show (like that woman who follows her 27-year-old daughter on every single date she has ever had) and launch into a pompous rant on how they are a great parent who obviously truly loves their child.
Another reason why Freedom: A Novel is entertainment rather than art is that there is nothing in this novel worth analyzing. As much as I loved reading it, I would not be able to teach it in a course. There is nothing to teach or discuss. The author explains everything with so much painstaking detail as to leave no room for the reader to have a single thought of their own. After doing that, he explains his ideas once again. And a couple of pages later, even one more time in case there are still some readers who misunderstood his purpose. In short, I will know that there is no hope for the system of higher education in this country when novels like this one become part of college curricula.
(To be continued. . .)