Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

My personal book club discussed Freedom by Jonathan Franzen last night. I was at a disadvantage; having read it three weeks ago, I couldn’t remember too many details–like plot, for example. You all know by now that my memory is abominable. You know what, though? Another member, let’s call her Barbara, was railing against the conventional wisdom that Freedom is the new Great American Novel. And she said that although she enjoyed it, it was not memorable in any way whatsoever. So perhaps it’s not my memory at fault here. Perhaps I’ve forgotten about Freedom largely because it’s…forgettable.

This is not to say that it’s not a romping good read. I found that I was looking forward to curling up with it each night; it’s very compelling. However, although I think it is fantastically popular because it zeroes in on and illuminates our zeitgeist in a brilliant fashion, I still found it lacking in any profound message or moment of sublime art. I wasn’t, in a word, moved.

My book club colleagues didn’t even like the book as much as I had. They found it dark, dark, dark, and they got sick of the extreme self-absorption of the characters. Barbara found it structurally flawed; she didn’t find any part of it believable, and she didn’t like that it seemed to slip in and out of being satirical–almost like it couldn’t decide what it was.

Another member, let’s call her Elizabeth, said she found the sex in the book appalling, and it had to have been Jonathan Franzen’s fantasies working their way out there. No woman would have written the sex scenes as he did. I won’t detail our conversation surrounding this issue, but Elizabeth had us in stitches laughing.

The characters weren’t likable (not that they should be), but some of us didn’t even find them realistic. The cad of the story, Richard, aka Dick for the obvious reasons, was the only honest one, we decided. Lots of smothering-type relationships going on; we liked that Joey resented his mother for smothering him, so he married someone who was the antithesis of her. Even if his wife was bizarrely self-effacing. Oh, was Joey really in love with his wife’s mother? Remember the MILF reference?

Anyway, if you want the plot you can go onto one of the hundreds (it seems) stellar reviews of this novel. We did wonder if there is a bit of group-think going on with the critics when it comes to this book, by the way. Oprah? Really? But now it’s been snubbed by the National Book Award powers-that-be, so maybe not. Back to plot, suffice to say here that it is, in my book club’s humble opinion, overly ambitious and would have been better if Franzen had not thrown in the kitchen sink, if you know what I mean.

I did really enjoy one gem of discovery that I’d like to share with you. I read Corrections years ago and the only scene I remember has to do with I think it’s the father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s flinging around his poop. Or dreaming about it or something. Anyway, there was a lot of poop in the scene. And now in Freedom, there is the scene where Joey has to dig through his poop to retrieve the wedding ring he has swallowed. What’s up with that? Could this scene in Freedom be a metaphor for the shit (pardon the vulgarity) that everyone has to go through in a marriage in order to retain the relationship? Could we go further and say it’s a metaphor for the shit everyone has to go through in life in order to grab the golden ring?

You decide as you read it. For it really is, notwithstanding the above comments, worth reading!

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