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Book Review : Jonathan Franzen


By Jonathan Franzen

Fourth Estate


By Manju Kak

Writer Milan Kundera’s latest book of essays, Encounters,  describes what he calls,  the death of art,  because it’s no longer needed.  Through 26 essays on personalities like Coco Chanel, Picasso, Le Corbusier etc., the Czeck émigré who settled in Paris, discovers,  “the sense that we have come to the era of post-art, in a world where art is dying because the need for art, the sensitivity and the love for it, is dying.”

Imagine this —what will our souls feed upon!

Thankfully, Jonathon Franzon’s latest and 4th novel, Freedom says this is not so. That even in this tech-crazy age, there will be those who’ll produce it. Despite the cell phone’s shrill decibels while you marry, have sex, attend a funeral,  there will be those who will step aside from this frenetic activity,  to mull.  And their response to the world around them will continue to become  `Art’, as in this well-realized novel of an  American couple, Patty and Walter Berglund.


Franzon took 9 years to mull on them.  It paid off–Freedom’s finely wrought characters stay in the mind long after you have turned the last 562nd page. Mind you, they are  Ordinary People, (like in  the film of similar name). Patty or Patrizia engages you—all of her 5ft 9” basket-ball–star frame. She is out of sync with her Westchester-based politician mother,  lawyer father who are such `realists’ that they even exploit her teenage date-rape by the County’s  `first family’s’ son. It’s this that makes Patty choose a Minnesota State College instead of a pedigreed east-coast one. She wants  to get as far away from them as possible.  It’s a matter of choice, freedom is. As is her mother Joyce’s obvious choice not to press charges; while  her father explains away his decision on loopholes in the law.  As parents they too choose; same  as Patty does, soon setting off on her own.

What follows is the hurt and brutality of family life–choices and consequences–  as lived out in a gentrified neighbourhood of  St. Pauls,  Minnesota. This family saga becomes a metaphor of  free America.  In Patty’s obsessive love for son Joey (not daughter Jennifer),  her need for her mother in law’s  lake house getaway, in her dependency on docile husband Walter, her attraction for his sexy best friend Richard Katz,  we find the tortuous edges of her psyche exquisitely explored.

Freedom is an important book. Not only because it ‘s author was on the cover of Time magazine in August, and so is a `must read’. But because it does for these American decades what  English  novelists  did for the early (British) 19th century society. In a similar straight-forward literary narrative it documents a typical American Life. Through its main characters  it describes the sensibility of this period (Bush years and more); decades that lay much value upon `freedom’. It posits what freedom is supposed to be, and what it actually  ends up as.

This past century that has witnessed the American chrysalis metamorphose into First Nation basically rests upon this grid of American libertarianism. The subtext of the novel states:  is it for this that Paul Revere famously rode through the New England colonies supposedly crying—“The British are coming” even as the War of American Independence broke out?

No, Franzon asks no real questions, but just as scenes whiz past a running train, he let’s the subject reveal itself. Yes, Freedom is a story well told,  but what is particularly refreshing is that the author resorts to no contemporaneous literary gimmickry to tell it.

Franzon last book,  The Corrections, much celebrated, however vaulted him into centre stage for the wrong reasons; a contretemps with  Oprah’s Book Club. Thankfully he has outlived it and the American Press is lapping this one up. Perhaps some of this lies in the reading public’s ability to recognize their next door neighbour in Walter with a legal practice in the corporate 3M that’s leading nowhere;  in Patty the housewife whose own career-life got left behind when she became a mother; in  the 2 newspapers at the doorstep, New York Times and Tribune.

In a sense Franzon does for middle America what Jhumpa Lahiri did for American Indians (ABCD’s included) ie.,  he typifies them. Maybe, like her, it’s his own millieu.

Which reminds me of something else.

Some time ago at a dinner party in Delhi,  an elderly woman who’d lived in Saddam’s Iraq targeted an American Navy man. She burst out—your view of Iraq was wrong. Theirs is a different society; it has to throw up its own solutions based on its own tribal character. What makes you so self-righteous  in thinking American democracy– is the only right idea for good governance? Taking a cue from her as we close this book (more so those of us who have a son in Silicon Valley or a daughter in Wall Street)  we’ll wonder on the fruits  of capitalist democracy. We’ll surely ask ourselves:  as a society, is this really where we want to go?