There are few books that I give five stars, and far fewer that have made my eyes water as I slowly thumb through the final pages, not wanting the story to end, not wanting the characters to exit from my life. I couldn’t agree more with Sam Tanenhaus: 1) Freedom is a masterpiece of American fiction and 2) it’s a thick book that feels even more sweeping than its 562 pages.
A friend (who notedly had not yet read the book) complained that it was just another white person book about white person problems. This is a critique of Franzen’s work that comes up over and over again, and reveals more about contemporary readers of American literary fiction than it does of Franzen’s writing. As “Melmoth927″ commented on one such critique by poet Anis Shivani, “where are the critics of Sherman Alexie for only writing about Native Americans or Amy Tan for only writing about Chinese [or Jhumpa Lahiri or Junot Diaz]?” (The feminists don’t like Franzen either.)
Writers do best when they write what they know, but what saddens me about the “it’s-a-white-person-book” critique of Freedom is that it belittles the universality of so many themes in the book that have nothing to do with one’s race, class, or nationality: the agony of a long marriage, the messy psychology behind parent-child relationships, gossiping neighbors, awkward sex, competitive friends, irrational anger, and yes … freedom. To say that a non-white person won’t be deeply affected after reading this book strikes me as just as ridiculous as to claim that a non-black person won’t be deeply affected by Toni Morrison’s Paradise.
Freedom is clearly autobiographical. In an interview with the Guardian, Franzen says that it wasn’t until David Foster Wallace’s suicide that he was angry enough to start “overcoming resistance to writing about unwritable material” … “the mother and son stuff, and the dynamics of the long marriage, and the shame and guilt associated with those very primary experiences.”
Of the dozens of themes that are weaved throughout the book and its characters, it was the competitive relationship between Walter Berglund, the red-faced, idealist environmentalist, and his best friend Richard Katz, the self-centered, womanizing rock star who prefers to repair roofs in SoHo than go mainstream, that has stuck with me the longest. There is something so magnetic about Richard’s confidence and so annoying about Walter’s do-gooding and anger management issues, even though as readers we know that our loyalties should be with Walter. Richard Katz embodies our perceptions of masculine liberation; nothing can bother him, he’s simply focused on creating good music and enjoying life. Of course, the self-centered insecurity of not letting anyone else affect him is what ultimately defines his mild, consistent depression until the end.
Still, the question that has stuck with me ever since putting down the book: how to maintain absolute confidence and security in oneself while always remaining empathetic to the needs and anguish of others? It’s not that they need be mutually exclusive, but so often it seems that they are.