Books,  Fiction,  Reviews

When Reality is Seemingly Condensed into 597 Pages


by Jonathan Franzen


Sitting in the Stacks Rating: 3.5 (this requires an explanation)

My explanation behind giving this book a 3.5 instead of a 4 deals with the cynical view of life the book gave me for a period of time. Although I was riveted to the storyline and would stay up until 2am reading, every page was also a punch in the gut. Adultery, death, self-deprecation, rape, lies, depression, death, etc, this book has it all and constantly reminds you shit can and does happen in life.

Originally I wanted to read this book, not because I heard great reviews, but because two of the main characters are Macalester students (the college I attend). Richard Katz and Walter Berglund distantly reminded me of MAC students, particularly their need to shun success and change the world in order to remain against the mainstream. I may have picked up Freedom because of its characters and setting in Saint Paul, Minnesota, but it was Franzen’s narrative of contemporary life that kept me engaged.

Franzen subtly remarks on current conventions that we take for granted, relating everything back to the abstract concept of freedom. Beginning with the title and the cover art, Freedom constantly questions the word’s meaning. Is freedom open space? Is freedom being able to be accepted for who you are with the person you love? Is freedom the right to make huge, grievous mistakes? Or is freedom the belief that breaking away from our problematic families the end-all solution?

Freedom is carefully constructed to comment on our hypocrisies without criticism. Walter Berglund may be for population control to preserve wildlife, but he has children of his own, lives in a large house, and works for “the man.” Oh well, that is life. We constantly contradict ourselves, work against our own happiness, and fall in line with the social order.

Freedom also has characters that everyone can relate to in some way. Instead of making his characters wonderful and perfect in the end, Franzen makes sure they are eternally flawed and continually err. Patty, a depressive, self-deprecating individual, embodies the competitive spirit that each of us has. We have to be better than our neighbors; more self-righteous, more successful, and more benevolent. Yet, at the same time, Patty sees her need to win as shameful. She represses her urges and in the end, hates herself for not being a better person. In fact, Patty reminds me of the person Sharideth Smith wrote about in her two posts titled, I can’t love me, so I can’t love you.ย 

In the end, Freedom leaves you shocked at the brutality of life and our self-destructive behavior, but also awed by the majesty of Franzen’s writing. Like the characters in the book, you won’t know whether to be happy or miserable after finishing Freedom. Nonetheless, it is a book unlike anything I have read before (although there is a faint resemblance to the honesty of Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You). I myself am torn between loving and despising this book, mainly because it reveals the truths about ourselves and society that we hide from and hate, making us recoil in discomfort. Freedom and Franzen’s writing style deserve a fair chance, so if you’re feeling courageous go forth and read.


  • Deanna Ogle

    I loved “Freedom” for a lot of these same reasons. The characters, while not really like anyone I knew personally, were ripe with humanity. I felt like I could meet all of them and Franzen’s descriptions were beautiful.

    Sometimes I’m not really sure how to talk about the book. I just know that I think about the characters regularly, almost a year after reading.

    Once all the characters had reached their “had enough” points and decided to do something fairly drastic about it (Walter leaving, Patty going through with it, the son and the other girl, etc.), there was a brief moment of elation of being free, but then they seemed just as trapped and lonely as before.

  • Ashley

    I completely understand your lack of words to talk about the book. This had to be the hardest post to write. There are many thoughts swirling about in my noggin, but transferring them to coherent sentences was a trial. “Freedom” is definitely a book that haunts you, in the best and worst ways, long after you’re done reading.

    What struck me the most about Franzen’s portrayal of freedom was that freedom itself is a trap, just as you noticed. It seemed more about the pursuit of freedom than the actual state of being free. Every character was pushed to the edge and yet, every single person just returned to their “prison.” It’s very reminiscent of the repetition that people experience in their lives, whether they recognize it or not, that results in subconsciously placing yourself in similar situations to make the same mistakes over again. I’m sure there is a psychology term for it, but the word escapes me at the moment.

  • Deanna Ogle

    Exactly! And in another sense, it kind of gave me the message that that one thing you keep pining after that you think will be the key to making everything better is often not. In some cases it can be just a different face of the same prison you think you’re leaving.

    Some moments it makes me a little bit depressed thinking that we’re all in a freedom/prison loop, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the point he was making. I think he was making more of a point about how people can fail to see their own destructive cycles and that real change and freedom is actually a piece of work.

    Good book. I’d like to eventually read his other books too.

    P.S. I love your blog. ๐Ÿ™‚

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