Do you know that feeling you get when you come out from a movie eeeeeverybody has been talking about and running out of superlatives to praise? And anticipations have been building up, excitement is in the air – what have the makers of this film done that will blow my socks off? The feeling that you missed something, or a sense of annoyance creeps into your mind…
I have that exact feeling with Franzen’s “Freedom”. Did I miss something, or did my anticipation build the story before I had a chance to read the novel? Maybe I just want to be on the other side of the table because every critic, publisher, bookseller and Betsy has listed the novel’s superior literary value up and down the isles. Maybe I just want to thwart this good feeling with my negative attitude. I don’t know.
I do know I cannot join in on the praises fully. And it sucks, because I was really craving that distinctive American narration and style. It can be quite luring.
To begin with the positives: the novel deals with and criticises the glorification of family values, the go-getters and just about every (post)modern tendency within Western culture. It is an attempt at delving into what we think and how that translates into (in)action. It is a story of the family – Patty and Walter Berglund and their two children Jessica and Joey (scene: the perfect nuclear family image – Americana Perfectum). But they are not images of a united front with shared values, a community within a community, but the fragmented, über-individualised family member whose family values and relations shackle rather than ground him/her. Going behind the scenes (something their nosy neighbors are not allowed, to their great annoyance) we are let in on a secret: family sucks! Appearances deceive and everything’s a mess; communications are rapidly breaking down – how can one talk of solving world crises’ like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, when families can’t even agree on day-to-day arrangements? The interplay is really fascinating and Franzen delivers a great deal to the table – we could discuss interpersonal relations with the Berglund family as a starting-point.
On the other side: it is a very, very long point to make. I have nothing (on the contrary) against lengthy novels. However, there are sections in “Freedom” that could well be cut and tightened to secure the flow of the narration. The Danes have a funny word for this type of novel. They call it a ‘murstensroman’ (brick novel, fat volume) but use it mostly in positive terms. In the 1930s this was a term used for popular short novels that were printed on extra thick paper so it would seem fuller, making the higher price more justifiable.
But to return to “Freedom”, I am in the process of constructing a theory based on age discrimination which I am a little hesitant to blow up full-scale. Franzen speaks very adamantly to/as a generation who invented, but not fully lived or constructed lives within digital realms. And a generation that still can’t make up their minds if family values is something to hold on to or discard completely. To tell this tale he has to make his characters into a specific target class – one that everyone presumes composes a family, but at the same time is almost too good to be true – characters that are destined to play their parts to perfection so that there is a bow on in the end. It feels constricted by the greater goal. I guess what I am proposing – bear with me, it’s a theory in progress – is that I don’t really identify with this struggle. I find what Franzen writes about fascinating, but more in terms of a curious fantasy world, where dysfunctional family structures are a source of astonishment. I would not go as far as to say that the walls have crumbled and everyone has gotten ‘real’ all of a sudden – not at all. People are self-promoting and glamorising their lives as ever before. But as networks have grown larger and your run-of-the-mill duck pond is no longer dependent solely on geographical settings, so have people come to interact and relate on new platforms. The term “family” and “relationships” are as diffuse entities as geographical or political affiliations. Being born into a family doesn’t mean you are obliged to relate and interact – that was not a choice, but everything after that could be. It may seem superficial to some, rootless to others, while a third-party hails the reign of ultimate choice, but this might offer me some explanation regarding my attitude towards “Freedom”. Somewhere along the line “Freedom” stops discussing with me as a contemporary voice and begins talking at me about the breakups and fuck-ups of Western cliché crybabies.
So yeah… you tell me, someone out there must have read “Freedom” by now and can explain which exit I missed.
In this lovely sharing culture of our days, Turidbloggar made me aware of this video called The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. At about 14-15 minutes in he points out that even if we inherit identity from our family and community it is a changeable factor. And that all this choice is not necessarily a good thing.