A Highly Unconventional and Untimely Review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

I have no choice but to begin this review with a declaration: I hate Jonathan Franzen.

Mind you, I harbor only the friendliest flavor of ill will toward Mr. Franzen, that borne plainly of intense jealousy. He has the life I wanted.

He was on the cover of Time, dubbed the Great American Novelist. He was immortalized in cartoon form on The Simpsons. He is the last great hope for the dying, rotting flesh of American letters, the heir to my heroes, the men and women I’ve sacrificed my liver and soul to emulate. He is a terrible writer.

"In fact, I found these glasses in Michael Chabon's recycling bin in Berkeley. Can you believe that guy depends solely on his literary talents to build his persona?"

I think I’d rather enjoy hanging out with him. I suspect we have similar interests and possess near identical thirsts for infinite detailed knowledge of small but important things. The man simply promulgates some of the most stilted prose I’ve ever encountered. He employs hackneyed literary conventions to conceal his weaknesses, and it’s clear and pitiable. How a professional editor, legions of misguided reviewers, and the remaining American reading populace endorse such dribble is beyond me.

So, you ask, why now? Why skewer the object of your envy nearly two years after the release of his much-anticipated Freedom? Honestly, because it’s taken me that long to read it. It’s terrible. I still haven’t finished it, but I can wait no longer to nourish the Internet with my delicious account of its mediocrity. Here’s another good one.

Freedom was one of the first books I downloaded on the iPad. I’ve always been the kind of reader who reads several books at a time, flitting between a novel and a biography and some nonfiction and some fluff depending on my mood. Now that I have dozens of books on my digital platform (Barnes & Noble’s nook, at least for the next few weeks while they’re still in business), I find myself reading 10+ books at a time. I read inspirational self-help tomes on my iPhone on the train. I nervously inhale the advice from health books to help quell my oh-shit-I’m-aging paranoia. And I still digest the occasional overhyped novel by a pompous blabbermouth who I really wish I was.

I thank the digital publishing revolution for allowing me to read such dribble in public without the judgment of my fellow passengers. It is an enlightened age where a macho man like myself can proudly indulge in French Woman Don’t Get Fat without fear of public humiliation and beating.

Let’s look at a passage from Mr. Franzen’s book and let the writing speak for itself.

Of course, he’d known Patty forever and been attracted to her forever; long anticipation had certainly been a factor. But there was also just something intrinsically more human about her than about the youngsters. More difficult, more involving, more worth having. And now that his prophetic dick, his divining rod, was again pointing him in her direction, he was at a loss to recall why he hadn’t taken fuller advantage of his opportunity with her.

I cringe when I read this carnage, the same way I would upon witnessing a gangly teenager spill his chili cheese fries all over his American Eagle t-shirt at the food court in front of the popular girls. He’s trying so hard, but he is simply failing. For mellifluous and archetypal accounts of male-on-female longing, reference Fitzgerald or Goethe. For quirk, choose Lethem or my dead homey David Foster Wallace. For curdling, unrelenting rage at the sheer lack of original diction and authoritative generational voice, choose Franzen.

Look, I feel guilty for writing this. It’s a feeble and sort of fake book review. Who writes a “review” about a two-year-old, unfinished book? But I’m mad, the Internet exists, and here we are. I fully intend to finish Freedom, and I’m sure I’ll read Franzen’s next steaming “masterpiece” just so I can be a fully informed literary jerk. Until then, I’ll stir my resentment slowly, tweeting my ongoing displeasure as I painfully flip my way through the final 100 screens.

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8 thoughts on “A Highly Unconventional and Untimely Review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

  1. I enjoyed this book from beginning to… well almost the end. Not sure if it was the writing or the sexual suspense of the inevitable and predictable that kept me reading. I found myself reading just this book and not flipping through other kindle downloads, hardcovers or magazine’s during the read which is always a good sign. The hollywood ending was a bit of a suprising buzz kill.

  2. I don’t know dude, I really liked it. I admit I had to struggle through the autobiography section in the beginning but then I was locked in. Consider this description of the ultra-conservatism:

    “The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is the personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.”

    An apt description of the Tea Party, or worse, those on the fringes of the Tea Party who commit crimes. He skewered the Left too. Remember all the rage about SUVs during the Bush years? Overall I thought it did a decent job of capturing a portion of suburban American life in the first part of this century.

    I’ll look forward to your review of “The Pale King” — I just started it and am assuming you’ll read it at some point. Classic DFW.

  3. I generally don’t like Franzen novels. So I didn’t buy this book … for 2 years. Then it sat in my living room for 4 months. Finally, a few nights ago I picked up thinking here we go … I can finally try to stomach this thing. Eyeball it. Whatever. I couldn’t. 2 chapters in and I hate it. Freedom now has the distinction of being one of only two books I will have started but never, ever finish.

    I found your post, after Googling reviews of Freedom, because I couldn’t rest until I found someone else who hated this book too. What a load of miserable, depressing, pretentious crap.

  4. My problem with “Freedom” are the characters. They are completely unlikable. I especially detest Richard Katz. Are we supposed to feel anything like sympathy for is guy? This misogynistic, ego-mainiac, cultural elitist is supposed to represent what? Does anyone care what happens to this creep? He’s not even presented as some over-the-top cretin, but as an admirable type of male. Yuck, this book sucks. Franzen should step down from his Swathmore ivory tower and create characters the American public can actually enjoy.

  5. Thanks for your perspective! “Curdling” about sums it up. Why so much backstory? Why such heavy-handed foreshadowing? Why does it feel – not like an immediate classic – but immediately out-of-date? The name of his genre should be “pessimistic surrealism” – it everywhere piggybacks on the quiet everyday joys that it refuses to acknowledge. Oh, and if you don’t know that “people incapable of love fuck up their relationships” – well, do we have a book for you!! 😉 (ps – I heart Twitter)

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