Book by Jonathan Franzen
Annotation by Kate Maruyama
The good thing about writing an annotation is that you can put aside the noise of whether a book is well-reviewed or not and whatever controversy is surrounding it and just get down to the nuts and bolts of craft. Although I must note that I was surprised that their was so much controversy about this book (outside of the Weiner/Franzen personality clash); it was neither a work of genius nor all that terrible. I suppose it’s proof that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Jonathan Franzen did some interesting stuff in Freedom and, conversely, could have used a machete to cut out other stuff. But there you go.
The book is an in-depth look at various involved characters’ progress from different points of view. I always find it interesting when these points of view bounce off of each other, or provide us with new insight when we’ve established our ideas from reading one point of view. Franzen does this well by opening the book summarizing the life of the Berglund family from the opinionated and breathless point of view of their neighbor. This gives the reader a broad overview of what’s going to happen, so that when we dip in and out of other characters’ points of view, we recognize where we are in the story. It is a clever device to keep in mind.
We then are given Patty Berglund’s point of view in a journal that she keeps for her therapist: in third person. We are introduced to the love triangle of Patty, her husband Walter and his roommate/best friend rocker Richard Katz. This triangle is told to us in layers from each of its three points of view, giving us new insight into it as each person’s story unfolds. It is a clever investigation of how differently people are wired and how three people can all look at one affair from his/her own self-informed completely skewed perspective.
Each of these characters’ voices is engaging and absorbing. The book, despite its five hundred plus page length keeps a pace going for a good several hundred pages. It’s a solid example of how keeping each voice close and real can keep the reader aligned with even the most unappealing characters. Franzen’s characters are so real and so detailed that you do feel as if you’re on a long car trip with people you just met and don’t necessarily like. Franzen has a problem with women I just can’t put my finger on. It’s like listening to a serial killer talk about a cocktail party–something is essentially missing. I reached the end of the novel assured I wouldn’t want to hang out with any of these people again, but I reached the end of the novel and that’s something.
Franzen manages to create tension around certain incidents in these people’s lives. We know that Patty is going to marry Walter and their courtship is so clumsy and simply wrong-headed in places that the tension of “how the hell do these two end up together?” keeps us through the rocky ups and downs of their relationship. We know that Richard has an enormous impact on their lives, so his self-absorbed meanderings are fascinating as he careens dangerously in and out of their lives. He’s a rock star celebrity who is vacuous and doesn’t think about life as a whole, but as a series of bad choices that weren’t his fault. Again, the voice, albeit close, third, is strong and Richard’s day to day decisions from not sleeping with his best friend’s girlfriend to sleeping with his best friend’s wife, from fixing roofs to trying to sleep with high school aged girls are mesmerizing. Franzen refers to Richard by his first name in any other character’s perspective on him, but when we are in Richard’s point of view, the character is referred to by his last name, Katz. This was an interesting way of not only differentiating points of view, but of distancing Richard from his own emotions, demonstrating his lack of contact with his own life. A clever tool I hope to steal at some point.
The writing itself did not dazzle, the way such front-runners in lists and contests do. There was no sentence-to-sentence exquisiteness going on, but Franzen’s powers of observation are keen and there is beauty in a few of his smaller moments of human observation, “She smelled like cigarettes, and she had a heartrending way of eating her slice of chocolate-mousse cake, parceling out each small bite for intensive savoring, as if it were the best thing that was going to happen to her that day.” (278)
Unfortunately Franzen has a political axe to grind. When Walter gets involved in mountaintop removal and population control, Franzen gets bogged down in the details and we are left with page up on page of proselytizing at the hands of Walter and his supposedly alluring assistant, Lalitha. It was difficult to feel attracted or sympathetic to Lalitha, as she comes off as a politicized talking head, thus making a dramatic turn later (not wishing to spoil that turn I’ll leave it there) lack resonance. The idea of removing a mountaintop to save a bird and that coal is better than petroleum is interesting for a one page article, but begins to grate when put in exhausting detail in the middle of what had felt like a very human drama. Franzen could have pruned down this point of view to maybe two pages in Walter’s life and remained reliant upon the character’s actions and poor choices, which were the motivating factors of the book. On top of this, he gives us Joey, the self-absorbed college-age son of Walter and his bum deal selling faulty truck parts to the American army in Iraq. Franzen squishes documentary and commentary into a story that had been doing just fine being told by characters. There is this urgent push to make the book something BIGGER than a close up long-term portrait of a family. It is there that he lost me. About the time Walter and Lalitha are trying to sell Richard on their warbler scheme, the book became a slog for its last two hundred pages.
But the story overall, the fact that family is not always what we hope it to be at the beginning that the very definition of a family may change several times in its lifetime–this is a useful aspect of human beings worth pursuing. As I move forward with my novel, which takes place over a span of time and through a few mutations of a single family, I am heartened that such a large story can be contained between two covers without becoming epic. And given an editor brave enough to face up to Mr. Franzen, this book may have become something worth all of the fuss. But my opinion doesn’t matter here, just the look at craft.