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

Freedom By Jonathan Franzen Farrar, Straus and Giroux 576 pp., $28

For a book that just came out Tuesday, Freedom has been an inescapable force this summer. Advance reviews have declared it the book of the century (even though we’re only 10 years into it). Praise has ranged from Time magazine, who plastered author Jonathan Franzen on its cover with the headline “Great American Novelist,” to The New York Times (The Book’s So Nice, We Reviewed It Twice). President Obama even chose it as his beach reading on Martha’s Vineyard.

The drumbeat of hype has been so relentless that it has already sparked a backlash, with bestselling authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner – who feel they deserve a bit of the ink splashed on Franzen – arguing that the Times offers such accolades mostly to white males living in New York. Weiner’s Twitter hashtag, Franzenfreude, is pretty funny, but the evidence in this case isn’t really there. Oh sure, books that attract a large female audience are too often unfairly dismissed. But Franzen hasn’t gotten a free pass from the Times. In fact, he reportedly called Pulitzer-winning Times reviewer Michiko Kakuatani “the stupidest woman in New York” when she had the nerve not to like his 2006 memoir, “The Discomfort Zone.”

I shall henceforth be known as the dumbest woman in Kalamazoo.

There’s no question that “Freedom” is going to be the book for the literary cognoscenti this fall. It’s 576 pages of the-way-we-lived-recently (before the recession offered some serious focus for our self-pity). The brilliant writing and caustic wit that earned Franzen a National Book Award in 2001 is in ample evidence, as is his willingness to go big or go home. But so is the contempt that ultimately put me off his last novel, “The Corrections.” The pages are coated with a film of disdain so thick it almost comes off on your hands.

“Freedom” is the story of Walter and Patty Berglund, a liberal, college-educated couple with two children and an old Victorian in St. Paul they restored themselves. Walter, whose defining characteristic is his niceness, works for 3M and then The Nature Conservancy, while Patty, a ponytailed former athlete, devotes herself to being the perfect mom and neighbor with the same zeal she used to bring to her jump shot. Despite Minnesota winters, they seem to have a pretty good life, before, as recounted with glee by their jealous neighbors in the rather fabulous opening section, it all goes very wrong. (If this section seems familiar, it’s because it ran in The New Yorker.)

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.

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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