by Jonathan Franzen
In a Nutshell
A week before Jonathan Franzen's Freedom was even published, Franzen was featured on the cover of Time magazine, with the headline "Great American Novelist." Pretty impressive, right? (Not to mention that this is the all-time dream achievement of thousands of folks who've ever picked up a pen or opened up a laptop.)
Why was the novel such a big deal? Well, Franzen's previous book, The Corrections, won him the National Book Award, for one. (It also got him into a bit of a hot water with Oprah Winfrey, when he called her book club selections "schmaltzy." She un-invited him to her show. But now they're friends and she chose Freedom for her book club. You just don't mess with Oprah.)
What we do want to talk about is the other big reason Freedom was so anticipated. The Corrections was, in many ways, a portrait of America in the 1990s, in all its messiness and instability. And that book was published on September 1, 2001. Well, ten days later, of course, everything changed. So, Franzen had just spent years and years writing a book about the way things are… and then, in an instant (or, rather, ten days, but you knew that), that vision ceased to exist. The issues people had been wringing their hands over for however many years didn't seem so important after 9/11.
The world has had to wait nine long years to hear what Franzen would say about us this time: about 9/11, and Iraq, and what America looked like (no, what it felt like) during the eight years of the Bush administration. And in August 2010, we found out. So Time put him on the cover straight away, announcing his vision as an event of national significance.
Since then, critics have been tripping over themselves, searching for new ways to praise the book. The New York Times called it "a masterpiece of American fiction" (source). President Obama picked up a copy while on vacation on Martha's Vineyard (source). Oprah gave it her seal of approval, and put it on her hallowed book list (not bitter at all). Customs agents have begun issuing copies of the book at the border, saying, "Welcome to America. Here's what it's like to live here." (OK, we just made that one up.)
So, enough back-story. What's this big book actually about? Well, on its surface, it's a simple family drama, telling the story of the Berglund family from St. Paul, Minnesota. In unflinching detail, Franzen portrays the trials and temptations of married life, and the tangled histories and shifting allegiances of the modern nuclear family. There are lots of heated arguments and a bunch of deep thinking.
We follow the Berglunds as they help create the America we know today…and then watch as that America comes close to destroying the Berglunds. We reach into both the past and the future, into depression and obsession, into war and peace and War and Peace. But it goes further. Like so many Forrest Gumps, the Berglunds find themselves unexpectedly involved in so many of the current events and the pivotal issues of our time:
- The shady behind-the-scenes corruption during war
- The effect mass-marketing and mass media has on culture
- The looming threat of environmental collapse
OK, you ready to hear some more high praise? Well, check this out: on the Esquire website, a photograph places Freedom on a shelf among a handful of other books it deems worthy of the title "great American novel." There's Moby-Dick, The Great Gatsby, Huck Finn, Don DeLillo's Underworld, and The Sound and the Fury… and Freedom.
Is it really that good?
Read it and find out.
Why Should I Care?
Since its publication, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom has been mentioned in the same breath as books like The Great Gatsby, Huck Finn, Moby-Dick – the absolute titans of American literature. To say it's rare that a book receive such high praise is like saying it's not very common for a human being to walk on the moon. It just doesn't happen very often.
So we have to ask: Does Freedom deserve to be placed in such venerable company? We can only imagine the debates that have taken place at book clubs across the country. But in order to answer that question, we have to look more closely at the qualities that set those "Great American Novels" apart from all other great books. One thing they share is that, despite their belonging very much to a specific era, there is a timelessness that keeps them alive to us today.
OK, then, what about Freedom? Does it live up to this measure of timelessness? One of the first things we notice in the book is how familiar everything looks: Franzen uses current slang, mentions current musical groups, and definitely talks a lot about recent historical events. What effect will all these modern allusions have on the readers of the future?
In an interview shortly after the book's publication, Franzen said he believes "something can't become timeless unless it had first inhabited its own time" (source). (He went on to argue that we as modern readers probably miss out on thirty percent of Shakespeare's references, because they're inside jokes from 16th-century England.)
So will a 22nd-century college student (Class of 2112, let's say) who finds this on her literature syllabus (alongside, naturally, Fitzgerald, Twain, and Melville) have any idea what Franzen is talking about? Or are the larger themes behind the surface elements what carry a book forward into the future? Let's dive in and try to find out.