When a geek and aspiring writer comes across writing this good, he can’t help but hate it: hate how the author actually knows how the world works in the way that he only thinks he knows; hate how realistic and compelling his characters are; hate how he can’t stop turning the pages even though the socio-political commentary is like being forced to watch back-to-back episodes of Question Time; and hate how the author was able to completely obey Elmore Leonard’s third rule, which states “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.” So it’s mainly through the green eyes of envy that I criticise Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen.
Somehow, “biting social commentary” doesn’t quite cut it – even Wikipedia puts it into the patently ridiculous categories of “hysterical realism” and “post-postmodernism”. After the initial prologue that sets up the story of the Berglund family, Franzen turns on his “shouty old man” mode and unleashes a torrent that might well include every single thought he’s ever had about the woes of modern America: the environment, politics, music, relationships, multiculturalism, parenting and even youth. After reading it you feel like no stone was left unturned in his quest to expose every problem there is with the country.
Every character, as realistic, fully realised and compelling as they all are, felt like platforms for Franzen to preach on his pet topics. Toward the end I became so tired of his cynicism that I wanted to disagree with him even though deep down I’d already accepted everything he’d said as true.
The book does end on a positive note, but against the sheer weight of oppression that preceded it, pales into sentimental inconsequence, satisfying only the emotional need of the reader and providing nothing to quell the misanthropic rage that the rest of the book incites.
Freedom is a scathing portrait of modern day America, but having said that it might be possible for a talented screenplay writer to strip off the veneer of loathing and reveal the interesting character studies that lie beneath. In other words (I never thought I’d say this): wait for the movie.