I was tempted to jump on the holiday bandwagon and make this blog about Christmas, but I just finished Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and had to write about it. I probably would not have read the novel if a friend from my writing group hadn’t recommended. She thought it might be useful to my writing, because my short stories had similar themes. I wasn’t familiar with Franzen’s writing because I had a bias against him. Back when I was a Oprah fan, he refused to appear on her show when his earlier novel, The Corrections, was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. I thought he was a pompous asshole and sort of vowed not to read anything by him. Boy was that a wrong call.
The casual way Franzen began the story drew me in immediately:
The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally – he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now – but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times.
That simple sentence told me a lot about the setting and the characters – an excellent example of showing rather than telling, by the way. The other morning, while I was outside with my dogs, a man driving a grey sedan flung a New York Times on my driveway before proceeding down the street to deliver more papers to my neighbors.
I understood the people Franzen was writing about. Walter and Patty Berglund could have easily been one of my neighbors. But what really won me over is the way Franzen captured the quiet desperation of the suburban middle class:
Where did the self-pity come from? The inordinate volume of it? By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.
Freedom exposes the alcoholism, adultery and marital discord hidden behind the facade of suburban living. And though I haven’t experienced all of the things Franzen writes about, I’ve had enough issues in my marriage and with my children to understand Patty and Walter Berglund. Their story reminded me of the people in my old neighborhood in suburban Chicago. The homes were so beautiful and well maintained, but on the inside people suffered in silence because no one wanted their neighbors to know what was really going on inside of their homes. I remember being devastated when I heard about a neighbor who took her life. Her adult son had been killed in a car accident. I remembered seeing her son’s car in the driveway. I never thought twice about it when I didn’t see it anymore. The friend who told me the story said the woman moved after his death, and then took her life. I can’t help but wonder what may have happened if her neighbors had known about her son and gathered around to support her. I know this is an extreme example, but the recycling bins full of beer and wine bottles sitting on the curb Wednesday mornings suggest that there is too much left unsaid.
The reviews on Goodreads are fairly split on Freedom. You either love it or hate it. I stand with those who loved it. Reading about people with similar social and economic background gives me insight into my own life. It also confirmed an inclination I’ve had recently to write stories about men and women much like myself who suffer in silence from loneliness and depression. I felt encouraged by Franzen’s honesty. I hope as a writer that I am able to be as honest in my writing.
If you’ve read Freedom, what’s your take on the novel and Jonathan Franzen?
I recently read Franzen’s 10 rules for Writing Fiction on 101 books. The list originally came from The Guardian.
1 The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.
2 Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.
3 Never use the word “then” as a conjunction – we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.
4 Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.
5 When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
6 The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than “The Metamorphosis”.
7 You see more sitting still than chasing after.
8 It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
9 Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
10 You have to love before you can be relentless.
I love number two and seven. Number eight offended me. Turns out checking Facebook and email does inhibit my creativity and limit my productivity. Go figure.
In spite of our bumpy beginning, Franzen may just become a new favorite. I’m off to purchase The Corrections.