I apologise for being away so long but I have been ploughing through two massive tomes - Franzen and Pamuk. For anyone dithering about facing 562 pages of 'Freedom', let me tell you about it. I have long promoted American authors who seemed the true inheritors of Joyce and Beckett in the face of the nerdy parochialists of Britain. However, Tom McCarthy has single-handedly resurrected the English scene while the American star seems to be fading fast.
I approached 'Freedom' with not a little trepidation given the enormous hype of it as The Great American Novel but I was encouraged by the first chapter which is admirable and in hindsight a very clever approach by Franzen to his narrative.
'Freedom' is the story of Walter Berglund, his wife, Patty, and their two children, Joey and Jessica, an archetypal middle class present day family living in St Paul, Minnesota. Patty grew up in New York where her father has a law practice and her mother is a New York State assemblywoman. She came originally to Minnesota on a sports scholarship and it is at college that she meets Walter and his best friend, Richard, initiating a love triangle that forms the core of the book's story. Walter is known in the neighbourhood for his 'niceness', a good listener, devoted to his wife. He grew up with a father a drunk and his mother worn out and physically wrecked, the owners of a rundown motel in Hibbling. The first chapter, told from the neighbours' point of view, deftly describes Walter and Patty as 'the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven'. They are politically aware, nature lovers and firm supporters of the liberal creed.
The remainder of the book then is seen from the point of view, chiefly of Patty, but also of Walter, Joey and Richard. But from such an encouraging start, the characters fail to deepen and Franzen leaves many issues unexplored. Franzen reportedly said he did not want to appear on the Winfrey show because he wanted his book to be read by men and not women. Is this perhaps why he leaves Jessica largely out of the frame?
The concept of freedom is not dealt with in any depth. It is referred to occasionally specifically and more often by implication and constantly confused with liberty. The core of his argument comes about halfway through the book when Joey is visiting the family of his college friend, Jonathan. Jonathan's father is president of a think tank 'devoted to advocating the unilateral exercise of American military supremacy to make the world freer and safer, especially for America and Israel' [veritably a Bush-baby!]. In the course of dinner, this man postulates that 'when we discover that our understanding of the world, based on decades of careful empirical study by the very best minds, is in striking accordance with the inductive principle of universal human freedom, it's a good indication that our thinking is at least approximately on track'. On such thinking is the Homeland built. Further on then, Franzen writes that Europeans are all-around more rational and their free market tempered by socialism whereas conversation about rights in America isn't rational. Did the Enlightenment not travel with the Pilgrims? The freedom Franzen is talking about is really about the liberties guaranteed under the Constitution.
In his attempt to paint a very broad canvas of America at the turn of the century, Franzen seems to have had a list of issues together with freedom at his side and one can tick the boxes as they appear: environmental concerns, the war in Iraq, smoking, corporate power, jewish lobby, drugs, but again none dealt with with great thought apart from the environment and that because it becomes Walter's mission to save a particular species of bird.
If you are looking for the Great American Novel, you will be disappointed. De Lillo has done it better and with greater style in a hundred odd pages. If you want something to get you through that endless flight to Australia, then this is it. And, in case you're wondering, Franzen does his usual ending, tidying up all the messy relationships so everyone lives happy ever after.