Every now and then someone asks on line what makes you put down a book without finishing it. I’m in the more unusual position of finding myself finishing a book that is driving me to drink with irritation. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is hailed on its cover as a ‘great American novel‘ by Philip Hensher and ‘deeper, funnier, sadder and truer than a work of fiction has any right to be’ by the Independent on Sunday.

Oh, please! These blurbs have left me forever distrustful of such jacket comments. The book is beautifully written, as you would expect, and crafted so well I keep reading in awe of Franzen’s skill. But it is profoundly depressing.

Firstly, if Hensher is right, the great American novel is (still) about dick. Like Bellow and the arch exponent Updike before him, Franzen dedicates his observations and insight to the uncontrollable behaviour of the phallus. Even the thousands of words attributed to the (very funny) character of Patty are still about how boys will be boys. The irresistible male sex drive is a pernicious myth, repeated and magnified in this delineation of the American Dream and its discontents.

If this is the exemplar, then it is astonishing that Alice Walker, David Bradley or Willa Cather ever got started.

Secondly, in the words of the kids of a friend of mine, the book is one long ‘white whine’. Despite the importance to the plot of habitat destruction, corruption, excess consumption, feckless war-mongering and over population, that’s all they are – plot devices. The problems faced by the Berglunds are those of wealthy (certainly not poor even when feeling the pinch a little) family in an advanced technocracy. Even 9/11 and its consequences do not dent the essential peaceful selfishness of their lives. I want to shake them all and tell them t get over themselves.

Maybe I am not seeing the author’s cleverness is undermining all this smug misery with his tale of misplaced love, dissatisfaction and sexual obsession. But I don’t think so. He’s wasting his enormous talent on writing what he (and we) already know. In the words of Hemingway (in his wonderful interview in the Paris Review):

“If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story. The Old Man and the Sea could have been over a thousand pages long and had every character in the village in it and all the processes of how they made their living, were born, educated, bore children, et cetera. … I’ve seen the marlin mate and know about that. So I leave that out. I’ve seen a school (or pod) of more than fifty sperm whales in that same stretch of water and once harpooned one nearly sixty feet in length and lost him. So I left that out. All the stories I know from the fishing village I leave out. But the knowledge is what makes the underwater part of the iceberg.”

Mr Franzen – please tell us something we do not already know.


About Sarah Tanburn

I'm a writer, a sailor and a strategic adviser to public organisations. Visit my websites to find out more.
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