Thursday, July 14, 2011

Of Freedom

After two weeks, I'm finally done with Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. In an alternate dimension, I'm still reading it, and will be reading it forever, just like in another, altogether different place, I'm still watching The Sound of Music and listening to American Pie.

The takeaway, in short: I'm amazed that Franzen was able to build a book that I was unable to stop reading out of settings I don't give a shit about, characters I uniformly hated and themes that were old hat in the fifties.

If I were to use one word to describe Freedom, it would be "distilled". It has the focused density of Kundera with the endurance of Tolstoy; it reads like what once was a much longer work, boiled down to the bare essentials. Every sentence, every phrase, and every piece of dialogue bears a crushing import, and this combines with the undeniably riveting nature of the book in such a way that there isn't really a precedent for in real life. I imagine it's what being force-fed five pounds of steak would feel like, which, if it were really fantastic steak, probably wouldn't be a huge problem.

Sadly, this is not the case. The characters are invariably petty and small and hateful, hateful even in the way they love each other, so much so that I cannot feel sorry for them and instead start to feel sorry for Franzen--what life has he led that this is the kind of person that populates his mind? I can only assume that Franzen is as obsessed with perfection and the ideal life as his characters, that the soul-crushing state of dissatisfaction his cast inhabits is projected, that he himself has let the inevitable disappointment of living hijack his creativity; or, perhaps, that's where he gets it from.

It's kind of academic at this point.

It's a book that would have been perfectly at home, would have in fact have been earth-shatteringly relevant, in the 1950's. America's consumerist orgy ran unabated; this is a time when dissatisfaction with near-perfection (because it's just not perfect enough) wouldn't have been so laughably obtuse, would instead have been shockingly appropriate. Trying and failing to achieve perfection in one's life isn't something one should be disappointed about, nor is this something that should ever need to be explained to someone.

Though today, maybe we just would never have tried.

That's all for now.

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