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.
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.