Monday, December 27, 2010


I finished Jonathan Franzen's Freedom on the afternoon of Christmas Eve; it's due back at the library on January 3, which means I read the 562 pages1 in under two weeks, which I mention not as a boast2, but just to emphasize what a quick and relatively easy read it is, as literary novels go (however you define "literary"). That is to say, it was quite enjoyable. I could not tell you the last time I finished a novel of this length in such a short span of time. There are just too many diversions in the Heisenberg household for me to finish any book in a reasonable amount of time; and I too easily diverted; and since I, as a library employee, DON'T HAVE TO PAY OVERDUE FINES, I never have that same sense of urgency about returning library books on time that the rest of you schnooks probably have. Therefore, I have a tendency to take my time; I have even been known to interrupt the reading of one book to start on another if the second hypothetical books should happen to come in while I'm reading the first and I happen to be more interested in reading the former than the latter. (This inevitably leads to the first book's being returned overdue.) Some people would be all, "No, I myself would save the second book to read as a treat after finishing the first", but to those people I say "Pfffttt!" while secretly thinking, Fuck you, luuzer, which tacit thought I'm far too polite to say out loud, but not polite enough not to let you know here in this blog post that if I ever say to you, "Pfffttt!" what I'm really thinking is, Fuck you, luuzer.

I'm generally not very polite, is my point I guess. If you got a problem with that, Fuck You, Luuzer. I mean, "Pfffttt!"

Back to Freedom, the first thing about which I want to say is: Its ending kinda took me by surprise. It does not have a "twist" ending or an M. Night Shamalamadingdong twisty supernatural ending, but its ending is sort of unexpected if you read The Corrections, which is all I'll say about it, other than this: Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce's Ulysses, says about Shakespeare's later plays — what are generally called the Romances — that they have about them a "spirit of reconciliation" that is lacking in his earlier plays. It is Stephen's position that the Shakespeare of the Romances is a man not merely more resigned to the imperfect world that his art mirrors, but more at ease with it, more accepting of it.

This may or may not be true of Shakespeare's plays (in Ulysses, Stephen's theory tells you more about Stephen than it does about Shakespeare, arguably), but it seems to me to be true of Freedom as opposed to The Corrections. If you want to know what I mean by that or to see whether or not you agree with my assessment, I guess you're just going to have to read both novels. So there's your 1100 page reading assignment right there.

In nearly all other ways, Freedom is really quite similar to The Corrections in structure. In the latter, Franzen was careful to tease out the various meanings of "corrections" — from market "corrections" to the personal corrections we make in our own lives to set them on a better course (one character's life is in many ways little more than his attempt to "correct" the mistakes of his father) to the literary corrections one of the characters feels he must make to his already-submitted screenplay to make it less boringly and off-puttingly meta and more accessible at a human level.

But in Freedom, the major theme that is being elucidated — at times subtly and implicitly; at others quite explicitly — is that of - WAIT FOR IT!1! — Freedom. Specifically, the idiosyncratic American obsession with defining "freedom" in terms of nothing other than Personal Freedom Über Alles. Characters betray each other because they are "free" to do so; one character (Joey Berglund) becomes rich through war profiteering, selling useless truck parts to the Pentagon for the troops in Iraq because he can get away with it; another character (Walter Berglund, Joey's Dad, more or less the most admirable character in the book), becomes, by the end of the book, something of a recluse and a crank environmentalist who gets into arguments with his neighbors (a gated community of McMansions has sprung up around him in the wilderness of northern Minnesota) about whether or not he has the right to ask them to keep their pet cats indoors because the cats are hunting and killing off local wild birds, some of which are endangered; the neighbors — one in especial — arguing, in essence, that her cat's right to personal freedom is more important than the birds' right to be kept safe from attacks by human-introduced alien species to which the birds have had no time to develop any defense mechanisms. Sure ... that species of bird may survive ... but at the cost of Fluffy Teh Cat's right to kill indiscriminately3.

Walter, before he becomes a recluse (for very good reasons, by the way), is the head of a non-profit organization whose purpose is to try to convince the public that we are putting too much of a strain on our ecosystems in general and that, for the good of all of humanity, the things that we — Americans especially — consider to be sacrosanct rights, untouchable personal freedoms, such as having as many children as we please and driving unnecessarily oversized and gas-guzzling automobiles, should be restrained, cut back, stopped before we reach a point of no return, before catastrophe becomes inevitable and unavoidable. And to me, one of the most interesting and illuminating episodes of the book is the strategy session in which the four or five main members of this group attempt to come up with a way of getting personal freedom-obsessed Americans to be receptive to this message.

In terms of plot, there is, of course, a lot more going on in Freedom — the plot and the major theme being pretty well intertwined. I've actually touched on very little of the plot, and I'm sure there are many who would claim that what I've keyed on here isn't even the main plot of the book. That in fact is probably a legitimate complaint. Because Freedom is about a marriage and a family and how the members of the family interact with each other over the years; but the issue, the theme, tying it all together is that of freedom, and what it means to be free, what responsibilities come with any freedom, and should any of the latter trump the former. Early on in the book, the son, Joey, is in fact in conflict with his father, Walter, over whether or not it is "fair" — whether or not it is an infringement of his "rights" — for his father to send him to bed before the adults. The boy lies in bed announcing every 15 minutes, "I'm still awake!" to make his outrage at having his personal freedom infringed apparent to the father. Later, as a near-teen, Joey begins selling some crap jewelry to the local Catholic school girls and is outraged that his "right" to make a profit is infringed when the nuns put a stop to the sales. Again, his "freedom" — narrowly defined — is infringed. Walter explains that Joey's "freedom" to make a profit is not in fact a right.

This adult-child dynamic — the childish insistence that selfish "freedoms" should be paramount versus more reasoned and mature attempts to impose a sense of responsibility as a necessary concomitant of any meaningful definition of freedom — pervades the entire novel; because the peculiarly American belief that a selfish, childish definition of personal freedom — it is my right to be allowed to do anything I want to do regardless of how it affects others — is a view that many of the adult characters continue to cling to, often with near-disastrous consequences.

But, as I said earlier, a spirit of reconciliation pervades Freedom. Walter does not remain a crank environmentalist recluse; Joey repents his war-profiteering youth; a marriage seemingly shattered past any reconciliation endures, and perhaps even begins once again to thrive. But as Stephen Dedalus says in Ulysses, "Where there is a reconciliation ... there must have been first a sundering."

Most of Freedom — at least 90 percent, I'd estimate — is about those various sunderings.

Making the novel's reconciliations all the more enjoyable.
1 I claimed, at the end of this post, that it was 576 pages based on this Wikipedia entry, which I relied on because, at the time, I didn't have the book itself in hand.

Before you condemn Wikipedia excessively for giving incorrect information, though, realize that Amazon gets the pagination wrong, too; as does Barnes & Noble — they all claim it is 576 pages long. It is not. I have the book in hand right now and I can see it ends on page 5621a.

I know what you're thinking — maybe Amazon and Barnes & Noble had a slightly different edition; but they didn't because I checked the ISBN (International Standard Book Number1b) and Amazon and Barnes & Noble cite the exact same ISBN that the book I have in hand has.

Since I know none of you will be able to live with this mystery, I hereby advance the following explanatory hypothesis, for which I have zero empirical evidence, but nevertheless still consider to be the most probable explanation for this discrepancy: In all likelihood, the pre-pub information from the publisher claimed the book would be 576 pages long. (I used to be a bookbuyer for a South Joisey book jobber (i.e., book wholesaler) and I know from firsthand experience that publishers' catalogs would claim weird-numbered paginations for forthcoming books; and you'd think, "576 pages? That must be accurate, because if it was just an estimate, they'd say 600 pages or 550 pages, right?" But no; they would typically come up with these weird estimations and never say they were just estimations1c.)

And so B&N and Amazon get the pre-pub information up on their sites and then never bother to change it. I'm not surprised at that.

I am surprised that some anal retentive Wikipedia geek didn't come along and change the Wikipedia entry yet.

Not to toot my own library's horn, but here is the entry for Freedom on our catalog:
1st ed.

Author: Franzen, Jonathan.

Publisher: New York :Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
Pub Year: 2010
Pages: 562 p. ;
ISBN: 9780374158460,0374158460
So we got it right.

I can't get too proud about that because so did the hated Mall*Wart, which totally vitiates this seeming librarianly victory.

1a And it begins on page 1, in case you were thinking the discrepancy might be the result of a 14-page Roman-Numeraled Prologue or something like that. It isn't; and if it were, the proper way to cite that would be: "xiv; 562 p." not "576 p."

1b A colleague of mine at the library has a tendency to say, e.g., "Okay, to be sure we're talking about the same edition, what's the ISBN number on your edition?" This same colleague has a tendency to ask "What's your PIN number?" too.

These redundancies do not exactly drive me nuts, but I do find it hard not to ... say something. Still, I consider it a minor Victory of Meaningless Etiquette Over Meaningless Grammar that I have so far managed to restrain myself.

I'm not sure whose Victory it is, though.

1c Okay, to be totally forthcoming: They weren't mere estimations. The "576" number probably came from the number of pages of the galley; which (galleys, that is) are sometimes sent out to reviewers. Further revisions — or even something as simple as a slight change in font style — could account for the pagination discrepancy between galley and final book form.

2 It would be an idiotic boast to make. I know there are people who bought this novel as soon as it came out and probably stayed up all night reading it. Yes, there really are people who feel that way about J. Franzen's novels. Which I kinda get.

3 Full disclosure: The cat's actual name is Bobby.

Another pet (no pun intended) peeve that is perhaps as nitpicky as the ISBN/PIN number peeve above:

In the novel, when Bobby the cat goes missing (if you suspect Walter of (minor) foul play in this, you would be correct, O Discerning Reader), the children of the cat's owner call for it thus: "Bobbbby! Bobbbbbby!"

This is NOT how any human being would draw out the name "Bobby"! This is some real carelessness on Franzen's part. Kids would call the name thus: "Baaaaaaaaaaahhhhh-bee!" The "o" sound is the one that would be drawn out, not the fucking "b" sound! The only time you would repeat a "b" sound like that would be if you were singing BTO's "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet": "B-b-b-baby, you just ain't seen n-nothin' yet!"