Searching for a read following my Man Asian Literary Prize odyssey and now following FridayReads on Facebook I had noticed a lot of readers were reading the American novelist Jonathon Franzen’s new book Freedom. Though I had no reference point for this I decided to look it out in the book shops. I had read he only wrote a novel every decade or so and that they were inclined to be on the big side but so many were raving about it I thought I’d give it a try. Not for the first time in my search for novels in Hong Kong it was not on the shelves. Though I did find Franzen’s first great tome ‘The Corrections’ was there and tempted by the title alone, hoping it might be connected to crime (a hope which soon turned into disappointment) I decided to buy it.
This novel started with a distinctly depressing set of themes. Chip, one of three sons of the Lambert family, seemingly an academic of some pretension, had lost his way, his job and his girlfriend in but a few pages. He was meeting up with his parents, Alfred and Enid, and sister Denise for a brief family gathering. Alfred, a domineering engineer from the Mid-West, was suffering from Parkinson’s which his wife underestimated, appeared to put up with but constantly let fly accusation after accusation about everyone and everything if anyone would listen. Though at the same time constantly excusing Alfred’s tantrums. They were about to go on a cruise. We were to meet the third sibling, Gary a little later. This was painted as a typically dysfunctional American family who played out all the angst of life in the modern american dream with equal doses of success and failure.
The early prose was a little overblown Franzen wanting to demonstrate his wide intellect and erudition with a capacity for lengthy, recondite, convoluted and unnecessarily complex sentences. But though it felt hard work the picture painted of this family and the scrapes and difficulties they faced, both humorous and depressing in equal measure, kept you plodding on. The characters grew on you as Enid sought to bring her family together for one last christmas, pointedly painted by all to be a disaster and to be avoided at all cost but which you knew was going to happen.
I saved the last quarter of the book for a final assault on it and it was only at this point that I really began to feel at home with the prose and with the whole book. I began to see that the rich painting of each character enabled me to enjoy and squirm in equal measure at this christmas gathering. I was slightly disturbed to see echoes of my own family gathering played out in these pages. I began too to ask whether this family was really dysfunctional, an easy conclusion to draw, or if I was to write a similar story of my own family and emphasize some of the more exciting, odd and difficult phases of our lives would it begin to look similar. In other words this family striving to co-exist with typical sibling rivalries and complications but occasionally doing so, this must be how family life actually is. The rose-tinted glasses of seeing happy families gather together at christmas is probably not the reality for a lot of us. I say this having had some great christmases with my family and some rather forgettable ones drivn by circumstances and just living. Actually I am not being defensive here about my own family or family life but recognising that part of many normal family lives is coping with the ups and the downs of what our parents and our siblings experience. If an elderly member for so long the backbone of the family is dominating now in a different but equally powerful way the dynamics of family life will be affected. The portrayal of this sad old man, making all around him live a nightmare, was excellently portrayed and it was good to see some difficult interventions by siblings being made forcing a solution which allowed everyone to find some positive outlets for living.
In the end it was this mirrored reflection on family life in a modern difficult world which won me over and when I’ve tracked it down I will try to read Freedom.