Most people will not get their news about Freedom locally, which is to say from the novel itself. By this point, the reviewers have gotten to it, expectations have formed, opinions crystallized, rumors spread. This is too bad, because few novels merit more the rewards of being read in a naïve state, undistorted by the hype cycle. For a while this past summer, the happy few who would write the reviews and make the pronouncements dwelled in this state and talked among themselves of nothing but Franzen’s new novel, at parties, at dinners, street-corner encounters. A current of excitement surrounded the book, which was itself exciting; since I first entered the world of advance copies, back in 2004, this was the first novel to inspire such fervent passion among the professional reader class in which I now have to count myself.
The passions, however, were confusing, especially to people who have been so relentlessly socialized or educated into understanding literary judgments as mere taste and who understand themselves as wielding the power to shape those tastes. They felt they were supposed to like Franzen, so, when they did like Franzen, they immediately questioned themselves for liking him and questioned him for producing something they actually approved of.
“Don’t get me wrong,” one blogger said to me at a party, “I loved the book. I mean, but I love lots of books that maybe I shouldn’t love, just like I love some sitcoms, and, yeah, some of those scenes, especially near the end, like when Joey calls his dad after he fucked up the Defense Department contract, it felt like a sitcom.”
“The ending, what did you think about the ending?” moaned another. “It’s fake. It’s like a soap opera.” She, too, said she loved parts of the book. The novel was, she admitted, probably the best novel of our times, but that was an indictment of our corrupt times, our debased tastes, perhaps of her own capacity for love.
I resorted to literary parlor-game comparison: “Not as good as Humboldt’s Gift?”
“Not as good as Middlemarch?”
“Certainly not. It’s not even as good as American Pastoral.”
I disagreed, on all counts.
There were other complaints: there was too much environmental stuff, there wasn’t enough Richard Katz. What about Jessica? The good kid. Doesn’t the novel ignore her as much as her family does, and isn’t that too an injustice?
In their different and resistant ways, these readers, even though they are also critics, were paying the novel the compliment of taking its characters and their dramas as seriously as they take their own lives. They all took Franzen’s characters so much to heart that they wanted to rewrite them and make them their own. These weren’t critiques, they were relationships.
At another party, a friend told me that he’d been reading Franzen’s first novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, and had come to the conclusion that, in those novels, Franzen was still laboring under the influence and curse of Pynchon and DeLillo’s paranoid novels of pure information, or “hysterical realism,” in which middle-class characters, once the paradigmatic heroes of the novel, drifted around, the prey of greater forces: the atom bomb, the airborne toxic event, the corporate conspiracy, the persistent blasts and blats of culture that shaped our fragile life on this planet until the characters themselves became meaningless, impossible to care about, devices and ciphers for greater scientific truths about our posthuman conditions. With Freedom, however, Franzen was announcing his own emancipation from what had become postmodern fiction dogma. He was showing us what he and we had known all along: character still matters, families still matter, the old tragic individual passions — jealousy, pride, love, the desire to be good, to do good, to create or destroy — these things still motivate us, even in our post-post age, our end-times mood.