Friday, September 17, 2010

Book Review: Freedom

Ah, just what you don't need.  Just remember: sometimes there's true substance behind the hype.

Like Jonathan Franzen's 2001 National Book Award winning novel The Corrections, Freedom dissects a Midwestern family with issues.  Yes, the Berglunds are younger than the retired Lamberts, have two children rather than three, and have more serious problems that undermine the family's continued viability.  Nonetheless, there are times in which readers might feel as though Franzen is documenting only a slightly altered universe -- that he's taking us to a familiar destination using an Alternative Route.

Yes (sort of), but what a trip!

Patty and Walter Berglund moved to a blighted section of St. Paul after marriage and, as urban pioneers, raised two children, Jessica and Joey.  Franzen weaves freely through time and characters to develop the background of his subjects (excepting Jessica; why does she get short shrift?).  An ingenious device -- Patty's third person autobiography -- takes up much of the first third of the novel, lays down the foundation for describing people around her on her own terms.

Even those with minor parts become fully formed individuals with multiple motivations, Walter's immigrant grandfather and Patty's Manhattan sister among perhaps a score of others.  The key character from outside the family is Richard Katz, Walter's polar opposite, randomly assigned college roommate and avant-garde singer/guitarist, who becomes his best friend.  (Upon reading, I immediately conjured up the image of author and Twin City area resident Neil Gaiman.)  While we read of the history of interactions amongst the three adults, precocious sixteen-year-old Joey has moved in with the family next door to share a bed with his slightly older girlfriend.

Freedom is a major theme throughout the novel.  Individuals are free to choose how to act; they must also live with the consequences.  Having and abiding by core values limits freedom, but reduces the probability of making mistakes.  Thus the paradox.  This is what makes the second chapter, "Mistakes Were Made: Autobiography of Patty Berglund by Patty Berglund. (Composed at Her Therapist's Suggestion.)" -- a book within a book -- so thrillingly alive.

The craftsmanship of the writing is at times so overwhelming (Did I just read that?!), the peering into the inner psyches of its characters so vast, and the intricacies of the relationships so ambitious that I remain in awe days after finishing with an admiration that may well grow over time.

Freedom is an amazing work.

- Dave

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