Reading Note:
Mistakes Weren’t Made
Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

My instinct, diligent little reporter that I am, is to copy whole paragraphs into this entry, typing them all out myself, and to say, “Here, isn’t this amazing?” A weak but effective form of literary criticism. If I have nothing to offer, that simply makes more room for the author.

Is it as good as The Corrections? Yes, it is as good as The Corrections. It is as least that good — so fear not. The question is a dumb one, although I’d find it a lot more interesting if people asked, instead, “Is it as good as Strong Motion?” Strong Motion is Mr Franzen’s second novel. I’ve read it twice, and loved it twice. It is as good as The Corrections and Freedom and, just possibly, better: it is not in the least little bit satirical. There are no laughs in Strong Motion, except for the kind of laughs that Dostoevsky so unwittingly prompts. Ha ha.

Imagine that you’re the first person you know to have read Middlemarch. What on earth do you say? When we talk about Middlemarch, we assume that there are only two classes of readers in the world: those who have not read Middlemarch and those who acknowledge that Middlemarch is a great novel. The class of people who have not been impressed by reading Middlemarch is — for them — embarrassingly small. It will be a while before Freedom attains so serene a reputation; there are plenty of critics among us who argue that Jonathan Franzen is a bourgeois hack. But it seems that those critics all live in California, and that we’re not likely to run into them here in New York City. In New York, it will be as with Middlemarch. But what does one put forward in the way of praise? Virginia Woolf’s line about Middlemarch — that it’s a novel for grown-ups — is a marvel of stand-up comedy bravado. It applies just as well to Freedom, but it has been used. What do you say?

I’ve read the favorable reviews in the Times and in The Economist, but none of them quite reaches what I really liked about Freedom, which is also present in The Corrections: the seriousness of event that makes crime novels gripping, only without the crime. Freedom reads as though there were a body on the floor. And there is! It’s the body of dissapointed aspiration that embarrasses even first-years at UVa.

Later, as his troubles began to mount, it would seem to him as if his very good luck, which his childhood had taught him to consider his birthright, had been trumped by a stroke of higher-order bad luck so wrong as not even to be real.

Tell me that there’s not a murder in that thought! Freedom is as compelling as any first-rate whodunit, even though both the “who” and the “it” are as obvious as sunlight. It’s the “dun” that turns the pages. Actions open up into sub-actions like metastatically dividing cells. What, exactly, did Patty Emerson do to Walter Berglund when she took up with him, even though she had the hots for his best friend, the rock musician Richard Katz? That it was wrong, we’ll all — even Patty herself — agree. But how, exactly? And what did it amount to? Did Patty not love Walter? You have to read to the very end to find out, just as in life. Even more mysterious is what went wrong between Patty and her beautiful son, Joey.

In the end, though, I’m going to have to quote paragraphs, because the beauty really is in the writing, in the colossal success of Freedom‘s artistry. It has been nine years since The Corrections, and I like to think that the first half of the intervening time was spent dreaming up the Berglunds and the other people in their world, while the second half involved the arduous arrangement of brilliantly composed narrative blocks.

One of my tasks for the coming week is to translate (reformat) my close reading of The Corrections, a project that, embarrassingly, took years to complete, from Portico to Civil Pleasures. Poke me, please.Â