About halfway through Jonathan Franzen’s FREEDOM

Jonathan-franzen-freedomIt’s not as good as THE CORRECTIONS, but it’s still better than 95% of the books I’ve read in my life.

Sometimes its worthwhile to read an author’s lesser work, because it helps show you exactly what you liked about that author. For instance, THE CORRECTIONS is a lot more funny and humane than FREEDOM. In THE CORRECTIONS, it felt like these were ordinary people who were struggling a little bit and might’ve gotten caught up in some stuff that was a bit beyond their control, but they weren’t really bad.

In FREEDOM, the characters are just lost. Utterly lost. Nothing can save them. They’ve given up on being good people. They’ve just given up. And it’s also clear that Jonathan Franzen just absolutely hates these people. He doesn’t spare them at all. There is not an ounce of mercy. He hates them so much that it doesn’t even come off as satire or caricature. People are always like, “Oh, J Franz loves to make fun of dopey midwesterners.” But I am not sure that is it at all. I do not believe that these people are somehow representative, even in his mind, of the Midwest. I don’t think he’s saying that these people are awful, but people in New York are somehow great.

No, he’s just saying that people are awful. Period. They are all awful. Unredeemably awful. And they all deserve to be tortured. There is something so profoundly misanthropic here. And what makes it worse is that the people he selects are so well-intentioned. They try so hard. And he always goes deep into the psychology of their dysfunction and tries to establish exactly how and why they went wrong.

But in the end, it doesn’t matter. There’s still no mercy. Even if you know exactly why a person’s soul is ugly, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re hard to look at.

And I love it. I really love it. There is a fierce aliveness to these characters. They fully inhabit their own lives. There is so much drama inside one tiny, rather-unremarkable family. When you read a book like this, it rejuvenates the world and makes life worth living, because it shows you that ordinary experience has the potential to be outsized and dramatic.

THE CORRECTIONS is an extremely polarizing book

coverWhen I posted about Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections on Facebook, I saw a wide variety of responses. Lots of love. Lots of hate. Most of the things people responded negatively to–the smugness, the lack of sympathy for its characters, the unrealistically-portrayed female characters–are real facets of the book, and they are very valid reasons to dislike it. Jonathan Franzen’s smug and crochety public image also don’t do the book any favors. But, to me, the good outweighs the bad.  I haven’t read any contemporary book that was both ambitious in this way and well-written in this way.

Not that contemporary books can’t be ambitious and well-written; it’s just that there’s a very standard sort of ambition and a standard sort of good writing. Most ambitious books announce their ambition. They’re like The Brief Life of Oscar Wao or Infinite Jest. They contain pyrotechnics: little clues that tell you this book is an important book. They tell you that they’re about big events and big themes. They span generations and many characters. They contain stylistic flourishes that call attention to themselves.

And most well-written books are also well-written in a very flashy way. The standard term for this kind of writing is, I guess, “lyrical” writing. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s also a style. Take, for instance, Cormac McCarthy. He’s an amazing writer; one of the few writers whose sentences really do have a lot of rhythm to them. But the sentences also flow over you. After you read enough of them, you start to feel like it doesn’t matter what they’re describing: the music is all that matters.

Franzen is not like that. His novel is outwardly simple: it’s about the members of one midwestern family whose matriarch wants them to all come back home for Christmas. And the writing is very pointed. There’s never more in any sentence than exactly what needs to be there. And every sentence is designed to give you more information about each character. His scenes and settings are very well-observed, but you’re not given reams of detail simply to establish verisimilitude. Instead, it feels like each one was purposefully placed. You feel like each sentence and each scene is being constructed. Like something important is happening.

The book isn’t just a family saga, it’s also about something. It’s about how and why to live. But not in any abstruse, philosophical way. It’s about how to figure out how to live when you don’t know anything about the world–when you don’t even know who you are or what you believe in. Its true that there is a harshness to the way they’re portrayed, but the characters in The Corrections are so lost and so confused that I actually found them rather endearing.

Anyway, I am only a hundred or so pages from the end, and I still think that The Corrections is one of the best books I’ve ever read.