Joy in Franzen

So the thing about Freedom: it’s good. I would love to be contrarian and say that it’s exaltation is the result of the old boys clubs of literary criticism. But that’s not true.

One reason Franzen has gotten so much praise, and even the re-endorsement of Oprah, is his self-seriousness. He set out to write a Big Book: one about families, environment, Iraq and America. Freedom is like a 19th century English novel with its character studies and subtle social clues. Even the vocabulary of the book, or as Franzen, might say, its lexicon, is comprised of many words I’ve only recently learned the exact meaning of through studying for the GREs.

I wouldn’t say Freedom is my favorite book from the past five years, but it’s the most ambitious book I’ve read since college. The reason Franzen’s book has received so much attention is that he succeeds in his ambition.

This was true in The Corrections, his previous book, which was almost as revered by critics, but I didn’t like. There was the stain of misanthropy through the book, and while Franzen’s prose, as always, was quite readable, I didn’t enjoy reading it. In Freedom, Franzen loves his characters the way you love your elderly dog who has lost control of his bowels. There’s shit everywhere, but what are you going to do? It’s still your dog, and Patty, the protagonists whose character is as enigmatic as anyone else’s, is still Patty.

And just as a fact: Franzen doesn’t give himself access to the internet when he writes. Not to say that’s what makes his book work—he also chews tobacco—but he probably has a point.