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Is Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom a work of genius or disappointing? Reviewers, as a group, can't seem to decide. The New York Times reviewed the book so glowingly as to provoke a severe backlash from some female novelists who felt under-appreciated compared to Franzen. Oprah's Book Club picked Freedom as its next book to read, despite Franzen's famous flap with that group.

But the second wave of reviews has been much less positive. Some critics think the book is trying so hard to be relevant and modern that it winds up failing at some of the crucial tasks of a novel. In this failure, however, Freedom is not alone. Many reviewers point to the broad weaknesses of modern literature, taking up questions with particular urgency for modern intellectuals--questions that, as one reviewer points out, Franzen himself grapples with in essays: what should a novel be? Entertainment, social commentary, a mirror held up to life? And if we share Franzen's fondness for the big social novel, at what point does realism conflict with the goal of producing a good read--or great art?

  • The Language Is Insecure--And What Does That Say About Us?  Charles Baxter, whose review is mixed, calls the style in Freedom "trenchantly witty and observant, and the reader is likely to forget that [the character] Patty ... hardly seems capable of writing the Franzenian sentences with which her autobiography is speckled." Ruth Franklin at The New Republic disagrees, calling such phrases as "fucked her like a brute," for example, "homely and lazy." She allows that the "strikingly inert and unimaginative language may be owed to his all-consuming, almost ethnographic anxiety about getting the appearances right--but why should a novelist sound the way his characters sound?" B. R. Myers unites the two views in a withering criticism of modern intellectual insecurity in language:
The same narrator who gives us "sucked" and "very into" also deploys compound adjectives, bursts of journalese, and long if syntactically crude sentences. An idiosyncratic mix? Far from it. We find the same insecure style on The Daily Show and in the blogosphere; we overhear it on the subway. It is the style of all who think highly enough of their own brains to worry about being thought "elitist," not one of the gang. The reassuring vulgarity follows the flight of pseudo-eloquence as the night the day. Like the rest of these people, Franzen should relax. We don't need to find a naughty word on every page to know that he is one very regular Joe.
  • Franzen, Tolstoy, and the Quest for a Zeitgeist-Capturing Book  Much criticism and praise of Freedom centers on Franzen's Tolstoy-like ambitions--his wish to capture an age, banal details and all. Charles Baxter for the New York Review of Books, first lauding Freedom's opening pages as "a brilliant hybridization of a Jane Austen and a D.H. Lawrence novel," then says: "But Franzen, judging from the evidence of this novel, doesn't want to be Jane Austen; he wants to be Tolstoy." What he means is that "Freedom's ambition is to be the sort of novel that sums up an age and that gets everything into it, a heroic and desperate project." David Brooks doesn't even think Freedom is Tolstoyan. Rather, Franzen's deliberate references to War and Peace are to emphasize the difference between his characters and Tolstoy's. The latter's "are spiritually ambitious--ferociously seeking some universal truth that can withstand the tough scrutiny of their own intelligence. Franzen's modern characters are distracted and semi-helpless." The Atlantic's B. R. Myers is the most scathing, suggesting that Tolstoy-aping may be responsible for the insufferable blandness of modern literature, of which Freedom is but one example:
Characters are now conceived as if the whole point of literature were to create plausible likenesses of the folks next door. They have their little worries, but so what? Do writers really believe that every unhappy family is special? If so, Tolstoy has a lot to answer for--including Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's latest.
  • The Corollary: Manic Attention to Popular Culture  This observation is in part implied by Baxter''s comment regarding Tolstoy: Franzen tries to write "the sort of novel that sums up an age and that gets everything into it." Sam Tanenhaus of The New York times is charmed by Franzen's observations about modern life (including that "college freshmen are today called 'first years,' ... ; that a high-minded mom, however ruthless in her judgments of her neighbors' ethical lapses, will condemn them with no epithet harsher than "weird"), which he thinks "grow organically" from Freedom's "themes," but Ruth Franklin and B. R. Myers are more skeptical. Franklin questions the novel's "precisely targeted moments of verisimilitude: that reference to the Silver Palate Cookbook, a description of Richard's college band ..., the stack of books by Elie Wiesel and Chaim Potok left on Joey's bedside table," calling them, if "not exactly poetic, ... at least sociologically apposite." She wonders, though, if this is all we require of fiction. Myers, again, pulls out all stops:
Instead of portraying an interesting individual or two, and trusting in realism to embed their story naturally in contemporary life, the Social Writer thinks of all the relevant issues he has to stuff in, then conceives a family "typical" enough to hold everything together. ... These readers want a world that is recognizably their own in every trivial particular, right down to Twitter, even if the book says less of real relevance to their lives than one written a century ago.
  • When Is Realism--and Boredom--Too Real?  This is the question central to B. R. Myers critique, but it also pops up in other reviews. Ruth Franklin accuses Franzen of "all mirror and no lamp." Realism, she says, should not just be "a transcription of reality ... The task of the novel," is still "not to show us how we live but to help us figure out how to live." At this task, Freedom fails, "substitut[ing] the details for the big picture, a hyper-realistic portraiture for genuine psychological insight.  ... Instead of an epic, Franzen has created a soap opera."
  • Modern Literature: Obsessed with the Middle Class Being Desperate  It all goes back to Thoreau and that phrase about people "leading lives of quiet desperation," argues David Brooks in The New York Times. "His message caught on (it's flattering to writers and other dissidents), and it became the basis of nearly every depiction of small-town and suburban America since." But as a result, "even a writer as talented as Franzen has apt descriptions of neighborhood cattiness and self-medicating housewives, but ignores anything that might complicate the Quiet Desperation dogma." In Freedom, as in other novels of a similar sort "the serious parts of life get lopped off and readers have to stoop to inhabit a low-ceilinged world. Everyone gets to feel superior to the characters they are reading about (always pleasant in a society famously anxious about status), but there's something missing."
  • Some Real Praise  At its heart, the novel has a strong message, argues William Deresiewicz at Bookforum. "The desire for freedom, in Franzen's view, is nothing other than an adolescent urge for irresponsibility and unconnectedness. The novel is full of people whose freedom not only makes them miserable, it makes everyone around them miserable, too." Thus, while the idea that "American freedom ... is the ruination of the world, and human freedom is the ruination of the planet ... is not a nice thing to have to listen to, and the novel's polemicism mars its artistry ... it is surely something we cannot hear too often."

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