I just finished Freedom and can report that, overall, it is absolutely terrific. The older I get, the more tiresome I find the interchangeable literary fiction that gets churned out by the cartload — so when a new novel comes along of which I can honestly say that some 500 of its 562 pages are in masterpiece territory, that’s genuine cause for rejoicing. I read the first 400 or so pages very slowly, putting down the book every few pages and shaking my head: “No way this book is as good as it seems.” Its portrait of American family life and romantic life over the past three decades is incredibly closely observed, and chilling; its message, though, is finally hopeful. But I have two major objections, and they have to do with politics and religion.
First, politics. In our time of magnified political passions, it’s understandable that a Major Novel about the State of America’s Soul would have a lot of material about people’s political obsessions. The problem is, the material in the book is too heavy-handed and gets boring pretty quickly. It starts out as merely a savage portrait of the liberal Mrs. Jellyby syndrome — in, specifically, a liberal couple who hush up the rape of their teenage daughter because the culprit is the son of a big Democratic donor. But it degenerates quickly into a detailed recounting of the environmental and anti-population-growth views of the book’s male protagonist, who is a crank. This stuff could, conceivably, have been interesting had it been given more of a satirical edge. Unfortunately, it’s so boring that the Washington Post’s reviewer actually took it to be a tiresome intrusion of Franzen’s own political views. And the book’s treatment of conservatives is even worse: Its skewering of the right-wingers is skimpy, taking up much less space than the flaying of the liberals, and also clichéd (neocon warmongers, greedy Iraq War profiteers, a couple of sullen and resentful rednecks). One gets the feeling that Franzen knows liberals personally and earned his contempt for them the hard way; but he can’t be bothered to find out what the real-life problems with conservatives are, because he has already learned his contempt for them from second-hand stereotypes.
And on religion: not nearly enough of it. Very few of the characters in the book are involved with organized religion, which is simply not true to the lived American reality of 1980-2010.
These cavils should not detract, though, from Franzen’s achievement. He hasn’t given us all of America in hard covers, but he has given us a lot of it, and that the most important part: the daily struggles of people coping with their own faults and those of others, in the worthwhile attempt to make marriages work, and keep families going.