After reading around three quarters of Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom I searched for reviews of the book. I almost never do this; I do like to look at lists that collate the best books of a genre or decade or some other grouping, but I'm not prone to read reviews of a book. I don't exactly remember when I heard about Freedom, but I do remember it was within a very favorable context. (I'm pretty sure it was during an interview on National Public Radio; after some brief research, I saw that the book received numerous awards and was a #1 National Bestseller). I navigated to the first review that came back in the search results, which was a New York Times review by Sam Tanenhaus who said in part: ". . . 'Freedom'. . . is a masterpiece of American fiction." I stumbled over the word "masterpiece" and had once again the painful realization that our modern masterpieces of literature are so very different from some of our archived masterpieces of yesteryear. Furthermore, I realized, yet again, why I hate modern literature so much.
Freedom is well written. It has a fascinating narrative structure which jumps backward and forward in time but never left me disoriented. The characters are fully developed human beings; the dialogue is genuine and engaging. These characters feel like they could be real. The interweaving of seemingly disparate topics and events is a testament to the author's ability for storytelling. From a writing perspective, there is plenty to recommend Freedom; however, I am loathe to recommend the book to anyone, ever.
"Modern" literature loves to swim in the deep end of morality and ethics. It seeks to challenge our notions of right and wrong or even explore what a word like freedom even means, as Franzen's novel does. All of this is fine, interesting even. Yet, Franzen has presented characters who are so morally depraved and mentally broken it's a chore to read anything about them. At some points I genuinely hated some of the characters. Perhaps this was one of Franzen's objectives, and producing such feelings in your readers could have merit. Unfortunately, in this book it's mostly obnoxious. Modern literature strives, struggles, and over-strains itself to be profound. Generally speaking, most of its insights aren't profound but vapid conclusions based on the author's own pessimistic perspective of reality. By the end of a book like Freedom, after having to endure the characters' numerous infidelities, betrayals, and even one of them digging through their own excrement to find a swallowed wedding ring, I don't really care what the point is; I only care about finishing the book and moving on.
What is so unpleasant about Freedom is its characters' unrelenting need to be nasty to themselves, each other, and just about everyone else. There are only a few characters who warrant much sympathy or compassion. And, of course, even the best among them falls victim to the injustice of our volatile world and the rakish behavior of others. Franzen attempts to put most of his characters back together by the end of the book, after emotionally and mentally brutalizing most of them, but when the bow is tied it's neither pretty or meaningful. The characters' happiness or lack thereof wasn't much of a concern for me. No, I don't always need a perfect ending to the stories I enjoy (see Mooncalf or Their Eyes Were Watching God). (In fact, when it doesn't make sense for the story and belittles the drama the story had created, see Star Trek Into Darkness, I find it somewhat cheap). Rather, I want a reason for the right ending, an acceptable outcome, even if one is not arrived at. Freedom provides no such thing.
I truly disliked Freedom. I can admire the author's efforts and give credit where credit is due, but I have no desire to spend any more time with these characters or the author who created them. Freedom is another fine example of what I don't like about modern literature. This might be, as the New York Times reviewer said, a new "masterpiece of American fiction," but that only proves to me how little time I want to spend with these modern masterpieces of fiction.
Other Topics of Interest:
Overrated: The Road
Pointless Stories and the Morality of Fiction