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Jonathan Franzen’s latest is already the year’s biggest novel.

(Page 2 of 2)

The next several hundred pages detail how Walter, Patty, and Walter’s college friend, Richard Katz, sabotage themselves at every turn, while Franzen opines on everything from iPods to the importance of keeping cats indoors. Richard (most often known as “Katz”) becomes a musical icon, while, in his efforts to save the cerulean warbler, Walter ends up lighting on a “whole new approach to conservation” that mostly benefits coal companies. His estranged son, Joey, tries on a career as a budding weapons supplier. As Franzen hilariously says of Joey, “The world had given unto him, and he was fine with taking.” Meanwhile, Patty drinks and broods on her lackluster sex life.

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The characters are vintage Franzen, which is to say that they are toxically self-absorbed and so competitive they should come equipped with video-game counters, the better to pinpoint where everyone stands in the scorekeeping. (A father’s death is welcomed, for example, because it means the son has finally won. Between that and the scatology, Freudians could have a field day.) Each character is engaged in a round robin tournament for mastery; there are so many relationship triangles, the end result is a Calder mobile painted absinthe green.

The one self-sacrificing character, Joey’s girlfriend, Connie, is such a welcome mat she could limbo under a locked door with ease. (She’s not so much selfless as so ruthless that she will do whatever it takes to keep Joey.)

Franzen’s acid sense of humor is the book’s chief joy, along with some truly terrific dialogue. Readers who seek out the pleasure of words strung perfectly in sentences will find much to admire in “Freedom.” Those who need to like the characters they’re reading about, however, should flee. (The idea of being happy for someone else is completely alien in a Franzen novel. Some might argue this is brutally honest. I’d say the characters could benefit from remedial kindergarten.)

Besides several unsubtle speeches – one in all caps – about the evils of overpopulation that even Meryl Streep could not sell to the masses, the second section is the novel’s biggest weak spot. Purportedly written by Patty as an exercise in therapy, it fills the reader in on Walter, Katz and Patty’s back story, and how she wound up a bitter, brittle alcoholic who’s alienated her favorite child and is still torn between “the great guy she’d married, and the sexy one she hadn’t.”
Fortunately, “Freedom” also stars Katz, who wears his self-involvement a little more ruefully than Walter or Patty, and is far less of a twerp than Joey. After 20-odd years of creating “wryly titled records that a certain kind of critic and about five thousand other people in the world liked to listen to, and doing small-venue gigs attended by scruffy, well-educated white guys who were no longer as young as they used to be,” Katz inadvertently becomes famous. The results are almost as alarming for him as they are for Walter, who really isn’t all that nice and had enjoyed lording his grown-up status over his friend, the charismatic failure.

Every so often a glimmer of empathy sneaks in, as when Joey watches his failed-actress aunt eat dessert: “[S]he had a heartrending way of eating her slice of chocolate-mousse cake, parceling out each small bite for intense savoring, as if it were the best thing that was going to happen to her that day.”
And then that empathy catches some traction in the final section, offering a surprisingly gentle ending that stands in contrast to just about everything that came before – especially the wedding ring in the toilet bowl scene, about which, the less said, the better.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.


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