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Book Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

There’s no way to make pain enjoyable to read. Pain has to be painful in order to do justice to its unique sensation. But some writers are simply gifted in describing pain and suffering with exquisite vulnerability, realism, and humor. This is a story about suffering, mistakes, and redemption. And throughout there’s pain and loss and even the redemption costs the characters something.

It's difficult to fill a book with pain and yet have it brimming with hope, humor, and satire as well. And that’s precisely what makes Freedom a masterpiece. Its not always enjoyable and it bogs down at certain points. Towards the end, Franzen tends to sabotage the momentum he’s built up by giving detailed background that we care nothing about. I skimmed these pages quickly – refusing to be distracted from the burning question driving the narrative. Larson did the same thing in his Dragon Tattoo series and its annoying.

It’s a story about family, love, sex, and the irony of postmodern society. Its about how your parents screw you up but your mistakes are your own. It’s a story about the permanence of love despite competition with other longings.

But this story over-rates sex. I remember Tim Keller saying that sex is the obsession of Western society. Every culture abhors something in the gospel – Muslims hate the Bible’s teaching on forgiveness of enemies like Westerners hate the Bible’s teaching on sex. Sex is central to the premise of the book. The book teaches that you can be right for someone in every way except sexually. And thus, that small but important part of you will only be satisfied by someone other than your lover. Perhaps its because of our flawed human condition but Franzen is clear about the consequences of such a pursuit yet more ambiguous on the other alternatives.

And finally and perhaps most effectively, Franzen is so good at pointing out the ironies of postmodern life. How we pursue environmental sustainability for publicity; the excesses of industrialism and so forth. Things get kinda absurd and over-the-top but I get what he’s doing.

Franzen captures so well the malaise of modern society. There are so many things to care about that most of us choose not to care about anything or display rebellion in rejecting everything (essentially the Free Space movement). Walter is the anti-population guy and he’s kind of a caricature of liberalism taken to the extreme. Franzen is satirizing liberals in this book. He also takes potshots at Republicans as well but he spends most of his time blasting away at liberals.

Yet the payoff is worthwhile if a little predictable and long in coming. I felt he could have wrapped things up a little more quickly and spent more time in the anticlimax, appreciating the reverberations of their collective failures.

The narrative arc takes awhile to build and the main feature is Patty’s 180-page autobiography taking up the first third of the book. She introduces problems that the rest of the narrative attempts to address.


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