It has been a remarkable six months for me in Hong Kong. (Still one month to go) One of the undoubted high spots has been the time freed from TV and from other local commitments and distractions to spend so much more time reading and rediscovering the delight of the novel. And so today I complete my 30th book in this period, appropriately one of the most epic and at times scintillating good read Jonathon Franzen’s Freedom. I am having a glass of white wine to toast this highly personal achievement and friends will know that drinking on my own is something I rarely ever do.
I have had Freedom on my to-do list for some time but partly through the energy and quality of the Orange Prize long list and also the memory of the over-long though eventually satisfying introduction to Franzen through his first novel, The Corrections, I had resisted its entreaties. FridayReads, book reviews and the fact that I’d bought an expensive copy in Singapore meant that I would finally get round to it and finding little else to distract me from my cough and cold, an easter weekend of determined relaxation with no-one around to distract and the non-arrival of the three remaining Orange Short List I finally set about this impressive tome.
The good news is that in my view his prose has certainly improved. It reads well and consistently so and there are less of the somewhat over blown passages of his earlier novel. It is an epic story of families, love, jealousies, love lost and regained, sibling rivalry and parental discord, affairs and depression, introspection and weaved into this is the layering in of most of USA’s 21st century mistakes and the insidious way in which big money, american self-possessed belief in itself first reacts to the invasion of the Islamic world through 9/11 and then slowly wakes up to the financial tsunami and the loss of primacy that America holds on the world. 2004 is a signficant year in the book around which most of the plot unfolds in an intricately weaved set of storylines which enables us to see the events from a variety of perspectives and insights. Combine this with a really good ‘family saga’, some wonderfully funny passages and some rich and complex characters within which the central family of Walter and Patty, Joey and Jessica float around causing mayhem and disharmony whilst hanging on to the essential of their family connection makes it a truly well constructed novel, worthy of a concentrated read. It commands attention once you are gripped.
A key character is Walter’s close friend, and sometime enemy, Richard Katz, in his on/off love affair with both Walter and Patty which serves eventually to seemingly destroy the family. This role is well crafted following the ups and downs of an obscure musical talent, eventually getting unheard of success which he enjoys and recoils from in equal measure, and lives uncertainly in the world and the people around him. Reviewers regard this character as redolent of Franzen himself but I can only assume that not knowing if Franzen’s own struggles with recognition and success are portrayed here. But Richard is a key counterfoil in the story and is excellently portrayed. So are many of the smaller characters, parents and grandparents and incidental characters of whom Connie, Jenna and Latitha I particularly enjoyed.
So I would recommend this book though if you are averse to hearing about middle class america and find the endless introspection and soul-searching of the middle classes you may find yourself fed up of it before the end. There are though some wonderful contradictions which Franzen does so well. Not least is the paradox of the arch conservationist, Walter, having to feed off capitalism and hurt the planet to try to make his ideas live. Enjoy.
This novel completes 30 books for me and of that I can sit back and enjoy the pleasure of such an immense range of talent, world wide, I have enjoyed in this odyssey so far. I have made a collage of those books to demonstrate its breadth. Which is my book of the HK Trip awaits further reading and more thought!! Now back to the wine!!