The Short Version: The story of Walter and Patty Berglund. Their lives, from childhood to the present, and their various passions, failures, successes, etc. Their children play big roles as does a ‘rocker’ who apparently looks like Quaddafi and is called Richard Katz. There is much Americana… and way too much about birds.
The Review: I’m coming late to the Freedom train and even later to the Franzen one. Haven’t read The Corrections or any of his other work – I finally decided to take a run at this book simply because it seemed as though it might win The Rooster at the ToB this year (It didn’t, by the way – the sublime A Visit From The Goon Squad took the cock this year in a triumph of good literature over not-so-good). That and it is maybe the most hyped stand-alone novel to be released in my lifetime. ….Yep, I think that’s actually the truth. And for the first hundred-and-fifty/two-hundred pages, it is one of the best things I’ve ever read.
See, Franzen has this hypnotic writing style – it is slightly heightened but it flows in such a way that you’re just drawn in. Like good narration on a film or like a children’s story put to tape by a melodic voice like that of Sting. The novel just takes you in and pulls you along before you even notice you’ve begun. And it is wonderful. Beautiful. Fantastic, even.
I think it was around when the birds started to become a thing that I started to really get frustrated. See, I can deal with tangents and such – I’m a tangential man myself – but dear god. Walter and the fucking birds. I found myself utterly repulsed by the book suddenly. Dumbfounded. This is not because I don’t agree – on the contrary, I think conservation is incredibly important to the sustainment of the Earth. That becomes irrelevant though when, in the middle of a previously quite good piece of fiction, you receive what amounts to the most boring lecture you’ve ever heard. Not only does it seem completely and utterly out of place (I mean, seriously – how much research did this jackass (meaning Franzen) do in order to write all of the shit that goes into the second half of this novel re: birds?) but it goes as far as seeming like self-sabotage. Franzen seemed to wake up halfway through writing this pitch-perfect reflection on the modern American family… and decided that it was a good time to talk ad nauseum about birds. That and he starts writing things like “hot, hungry microcosm of Patty’s cunt”, I’m officially switching from lover to hater.
The novel, interestingly enough, is like one’s relationship to NPR. This is not entirely coincidental, seeing as the novel pushes the classic “liberal agenda” pretty damn stridently. But seriously, I grew up listening to NPR at home. I love the radio shows, the politics, etc. It’s part of my youth. That said, it gets annoying sometimes. Even to me. You’ll be listening to a great story on “This American Life” or laughing along to “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” and then you’re slapbang in the middle of some bleeding heart story about the bonobos in Uruguay and you’re like “this affects me in no way shape or form. seriously. this does not affect me in the slightest” and you start getting angry at the station and the station just keeps taking you deeper into the most ridiculous stereotypes of liberal ideology and you just want to bang your head and shout to the skies “THIS IS WHY THEY WANT TO CUT YOUR FUNDING, YOU MORONS!”
…..ahem. But seriously, that’s this book. It can be funny and pithy and so incredibly suave about capturing what it means to be an American today… and then there’s all this shit about birds. I’m sorry if it seems like I’m harping, but it was frustrating and annoying and unnecessary in my mind. To the point that, as you can tell, I began to get actively angry with the book.
It doesn’t help, I suppose, that none of the characters are very likeable. And Franzen has this thing about trying to seem hip and with-it and so he namedrops “the cool bands” and talks about Conor Oberst’s powder blue tuxedo and, again, there’s that NPR sense of “we’re cool, right?!” about the whole venture. The kids are obnoxious and the one semi-likeable one (Jessica) gets the short shrift in attention. The adults are annoying and strangely flat – once their personal quirks have been revealed, they become nothing more than a manifestation of that quirk, that problem: Walter puts others ahead of him and only wants to please Patty and thus is never forceful with her, Patty loves Richard and not Walter, Richard is a hard-living rock star who doesn’t care about anyone. These traits go from single descriptors to the definition of these characters. They are flat and boring, put simply.
In the end, a novel that could’ve been what everyone thought it might be – The Great American Novel, at least of the beginning of the 21st Century – is nothing more than the same dashed hopes we liberals feel looking at Obama’s Presidency. Franzen does such a great job creating and evoking and capturing every little aspect of the demented way that families exist today that he didn’t need to go so far afield. He didn’t need to make his characters devoid of any redeeming goodness. He didn’t need to write with pinky extended – he could’ve kept it grounded and kept it truthful. Instead, it gets lost in it’s own intentions of greatness.
Rating: 3 out of 5. Squarely in the middle. What started out so well turned into an annoyance… then an outright frustration… mixed with a little hatred now and then… and ended with such a whimper that I closed the book and rolled my eyes at the end. Sure, Franzen is a great novelist – he’s funny and incredibly talented. But this is a clear instance of believing the hype – the man is not our greatest living writer. This isn’t even the best book of the year. For me, I’m not even sure it makes my top ten… except, well, that beginning half was pretty damn great. But I’m done with the liberal paranoia and angst of 2007/2008. It’s 2011 – that’s so the Aughts.