Everybody’s Doing It (Reading Freedom, that is)

It’s the new year, and I’m happy to say I seem newly well. After a long bout with a rotten flu-like virus over the holidays (and a class to teach every morning with only half my voice intact), I think I’m finally coming back to the realm of the living.

If two-ish weeks of sickness has any discernible benefit, it’s the many hours I allow myself to devote to reading, since there’s no way I do much more than the minimum amount of work while living on Dayquil and Yogi Tea. And this two-ish weeks was just about enough time to take on a book that’s been getting a lot of press lately.

Let me begin by admitting that I came to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom with a bit of a negative impression. Yes, I loved The Corrections. In fact, The Corrections was just about as good as his previous novel, The 27th City, was spectacularly bad. It’s not just any writer who can go from writing cut-rate political “suspense” like The 27th City to crafting exceptional characters who are, if not exactly likable, at least eerie reflections of the worst parts of ourselves. But when it came to Freedom, I was so put off by the Franzen marketing machine, which succeeded in convincing a number of media outlets to hail him as the voice of our age, the great literary mind of our generation, and maybe even an incarnation of Vishnu. I tend to agree with Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner that, when a man writes about feelings, the result is considered “Literature,” and when a woman does the same, it’s considered “chick lit,” so I felt enough distaste for Franzen’s hitching his star to some false invention of Literary credibility that I almost passed Freedom up altogether.

But irritating as Franzen’s marketing persona may be (I have to be generous enough to assume Mr. Franzen doesn’t believe all the hype his publicist managed to get Time Magazine et.al. to buy into), I realized that, if it were in fact true that this was the book of the century, and the Great American Novel, I’d be silly if I never bothered to read it. So read I did.

It was not the Great American Novel. It was a novel. And it was American. It was also of great length, and went into a great detail in its 550 pages, but I don’t feel those add up to any greater sum of the parts listed.

In the interest of not spoiling the read for anyone who has yet to tackle the tome, I won’t give away any terribly juicy details here. But I will summarize the plot as follows: pathetic, lazy, and greedy people doing rotten things to other pathetic, lazy, and greedy people, thinking of no one but themselves, and of which body parts they’d like to put in other people’s orifices.

I have to think that American literature has more to offer than descriptions of people’s selfish, libidinous pokings-around. Even some of the most bleak literature in our history–I’m thinking of The Grapes of Wrath, of An American Tragedy, of As I Lay Dying–had the hint of social commentary, of suggesting by what means individuals have been brought low by unworkable social structures, and of how we might be able to supplant or amend the systems that have devastated lives. They aren’t uplifting novels by any means, but they make gestures. Freedom does nothing of the sort. It simply suggests, with no more compelling reasoning than Woody Allen, that “the heart wants what the heart wants.” (Though, in Freedom’s case, “heart” might well be substituted with another body part.)

I hope readers of American literature don’t settle for a book like Freedom if it’s the novel of the age they’re looking for. There’s far better out there.

Next time, join me for a discussion of the next non-novel-of-the-age: Snookie’s A Shore Thing. Also known as, Should The Rest of Us Simply Tan More in Order to Get Book Deals?

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2 thoughts on “Everybody’s Doing It (Reading Freedom, that is)

  1. haha you make me laugh: “when a man writes about feelings, the result is considered ‘Literature'” — I admire your persistence in reading through to the end — the way you describe Franzen’s writing, he reminds me of Norman Mailer (who wrote quite a bit about “body parts in other people’s orifices.” Sigh. Thanks for this review, and for keeping the bar high for American literature.

  2. It’s true, though, I think! If a woman writer spent half as many pages describing people’s internal states of angst, The New York Times and other supposed bastions of culture would either have a great deal of fun deriding the book, or would never review it in the first place. Now if a woman swung to the other end of the spectrum and wrote something brutal and grim as an early Cormac McCarthy novel? I wonder if that would get any attention…

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