Whatever you think of Jonathan Franzen´s social skills, as a novelist he is damned brilliant. "Freedom", like his earlier novel "The Corrections", is a long, dense thing of a book, and I read it a bit like I watch episodes of "Fawlty Towers". I want to scream at the characters not to say that, not to do that, not to, not to, because it´s going to end badly. And it does. The characters are driven through hell by their own ambitions to not be like their parents, to do good, to be better than everybody else, and what have you.
Patty is a basketball star who hurts her knee, is jilted by sexy rocker Richard and instead marries her admirer, square Walter Berglund and decides to be a perfect mother (unlike her own). When she fails (of course) she falls into deep depression. Walter is an idealist who becomes corrupted by the illusion that he can use dirty money to do good and save bits of the world. Richard becomes a celebrity who can´t handle his fame or his relationship with the Berglunds. And the Berglund´s son Joey wants to be free from his parents and tries to fly way from the nest sooner than he is ready for it.
It´s like a classic coming-of-age novel, except there are four characters that go through that journey. None of them are particularly sympathetic, but Franzen is still loyal to them all, and I want them all to be happy. They all reach rock bottom, and like a good moralist, Franzen is merciful and gives the repentful a second chance. Perhaps not they way I wanted them to end up, but what the hell, they are who they are and they cannot entirely transform into some other folk, can they?
Franzen´s style is fast, if I can describe it like that. It feels like he writes fast and one get´s a bit out of breath reading him. I find myself taking unusually long breaks from the book, to get some rest. There is plenty of detail, but none of it seems superfluous. He really nails the spirit of the time (from the late 70´s until now, mostly now, or very recently) and I imagine that books that he mentions, like "War and Peace" and "Atonement" holds clues to the story that I don´t get because I haven´t read them. I have a feeling that there are depths in here that hardly any reader will entirely grasp.
In creative writing classes one is often taught to show, not tell. Franzen isn´t afraid to tell, and show, and tell and show at the same time. He does it very elegantly and he really is a master of his craft. He manages to communicate at several levels at the same time and show the mechanisms of manipulation and connect the scenes to the very distant past (generations ago) and the future, sometimes in one elegant sentence. If I hadn´t read the Swedish translation I would have bored you with quotes. As it is, you´ll have to find out for yourself.
The word freedom comes back all the time in the story, but the one expression that gets stuck in my mind is a Swedish one: "to take freedom with". It means to use something or someone that isn´t legally or morally yours, it means that you expand your freedom of action on someone elses expense. I know that Franzen doesn´t speak Swedish (even though his ancestors were from here), but perhaps he has some intuitive understanding of the expression, because that is what this book is very much about. On every level - personal, economical, political. Everyone is trying to screw everyone else. And it causes resentment and hate. And rage. He could have called the book "Rage".
This is a bona fide, proper, old-fashioned novel. This is what a novel should be to be a great novel. If Franzen can write a couple more of these, he should make the shortlist for the Nobel Prize. I´m sure I´m not the only one who thinks so.
|Freedom, Swedish Style: a Man, a Fire, Sausages, in a Forrest.|