How do you review a two-year-old novel that took you a year to read and that no one else in the country at this time cares much about?
Last Christmas, my nephew Sean overbought my present having drawn me in the family lottery and knowing I was fast running out of money to support myself. He sent me the book I asked for, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, (2010, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), an Oprah's Book Club selection, and called the best book of American fiction for that year by Esquire magazine.
Sean also sent me a new pair of jeans and a very nice sweater-like shirt/jacket, my appreciation for which has lasted much longer than my appreciation for Franzen's book.
And yet, finally having finished the novel, I wanted to review it here in my own time, hoping to acknowledge not only my sister's son's generosity but also the long-term pleasure one gets from reading even when the quality of the writing is less than you might have hoped.
Literature, after all, is created by writing that is memorably excellent, and Franzen's book is meant to be a literary novel, not just a bestseller.
I don't think the book was as bad as it was considered to be by B.R. Myers, who practically ridiculed it in a review in the October 2010 issue of The Atlantic magazine. But I also don't think Franzen's work was worthy of the three A+s, seven As, two A-s, and three Bs which the book earned by graders at the complete review, a website that aggregates reviews of recently published books and offers a grade for the book based on the content of the review. The Atlantic's review gained "Freedom" its lowest grade: D.
But as I read the book, I never got a sense of reading something "good-to-great" until the final chapter of Franzen's 562 pages. A good book will give you that sensation much earlier in the writing, and a classic work of literature gives it to you from the start.
And still I kept reading, from last New Year's Day until I finished about mid October. I do that not only because I admit to being a slow reader but also because I could sense Franzen's striving. There was some heft to his story, and he was making a novel out of what one reviewer called "everyday life" in America, content I have always believed contains the heroism of every great American literary classic.
Even when the writer's efforts fall short of that standard, the experience of reading the words can bring great pleasure. That is the essence of the best seller in America. It doesn't have to be a literary giant to sell. It just has to extend the pleasure of reading to those who keep turning its pages.
There are other weaknesses in Franzen's book.
For a novel about the preservation of a bird species and the natural environment, the writing is particularly devoid of natural imagery. Perhaps that's an intentional device to support the theme of the over commercialization of American life, but images are the stuff of great literature, and to subtract them from your writing rather than revel in them seems a mistake.
Instead, Franzen tries to describe mental states: thoughts, reflections, philosophies and ideologies. But such description falls short of the imaginative scenery a reader constructs when ingesting a great piece of fiction, a real world made up only in one's imagination.
I missed that element of a great book as I read Freedom over a long period of time. Still, I enjoyed ten months of mild reading pleasure.