The undoubted literary event 2010 has been the release of Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom. It is a follow up of sorts to his 2001 novel The Corrections, which caused a stir when Franzen had the sheer audacity to decline the blessing of Oprah Winfrey. To say that his new novel has received wide acclaim would be something of an understatement. It has been labelled “a work of total genius” by New York magazine and has been declared, albeit somewhat prematurely, as the “novel of the century” by The Guardian. I approached the novel with some trepidation. Generally when such things are greeted with hyperbole and hysteria, they can never live up to the reputation that is afforded by such great reviews. I resolved myself to read the 562 page tome on my holiday, much like President Obama. Could it possibly live up to the hype?
The answer is no, but then few could match the expectations set. However, this does not mean that it is not a good book, and not worth the investment of time. Franzen is clearly a talented writer, and can be in turn both engaging and evocative with his words. However I have to be slightly critical here, if only to redress the balance somewhat. Perhaps the biggest problem I have with his writing is the way he treats his characters. Franzen writes as though he is looking down on the characters in the novel, almost sneering at them. As such, it is hard to feel any empathy for the characters and the situation they are in. The only character I was able to feel anything for was Joey, but it was hard to make any long-lasting connection due to the ever-changing narrative. The characters are to be despised rather than pitied, and by the time you get to the (rather unsatisfying) conclusion, you can’t help but feel a little bit cheated. In Freedom, Franzen has attempted to create another American Epic in the vein of his previous work The Corrections. In the process, the buzzwords of the 21st century are routinely checked off the list: Bush, Iraq, Oil, Climate Change, GFC, etc; all done without yielding anything interesting to say on the topics. The novel isn’t without positives of course, such as great insight into the workings of a modern family, and it can be rewarding as long as you manage to ignore the mass excitement it has received. This, of course, is much easier said that done.