Friday, March 11, 2011

Another View Of An American Dream

I also read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, the same book that fellow blogger Anna blogged last week in An American Dream (in fact, I borrowed her copy), but I had a very different reaction to it. Instead of being put off by Walter and Patty Berglund, I found them compelling.

The beginning of the book, where the Berglund family in suburban St. Paul is observed by an omniscient and somewhat snarky narrator, did make me wonder if I would enjoy this voice for 500 pages. But quickly the narrative switches to Patty's third-person autobiography “Mistakes Were Made” (what a great title!), written at the suggestion of her therapist, where she reveals her back story and the inner conflicts that make her so much more complex than she appeared to the snarky observer. Patty's story exposes the powerful triangle that dominates the remainder of the book – herself, her husband Walter, and Walter's best friend rock musician Richard Katz, who looks like Moammar Gadhafi (or choose the spelling of your choice).

Or maybe it's a rectangle, with the fourth side being the Berglund's teenage son Joey who confounds his earnest liberal parents, especially his doting mother, by moving next door to live with his adoring girlfriend, whose ditsy single mother and her chainsaw-wielding, beer-drinking boyfriend are the bane of Patty's existence. And without being patronizing, Franzen makes this all very funny.

But that's just Act One. Franzen follows all these characters forward to 2004, where each of them is following a path which seems to lead to freedom, set against the backdrop of the Iraq war. The narrative shifts from one character to another, each time interrupting the story just as something momentous is about to happen. This is not a minimalist novel; it's a sprawling, juicy, tumultuous story, and as the perspective switched so did my sympathies. I can complain that the social commentary got a little preachy and self-important, but I have to admire how all the characters are complex, conflicted, seeking what they think they want and then retreating from it. And did I mention that Franzen's prose was insightful and a joy to read?

So there you have it – one book; two perspectives. Your tolerance for dysfunctional families and general snarkiness will probably effect your impressions of this book.


  1. Add my positive vote on this book, which captured the essence of many contemporary conflicts and dissatisfactions in the messy lives of it's complex characters. I was surprised, given the conflicts and struggles within, as well as between, the characters, how intermittently funny it was. Franzen strikes at pretenses and self-deception quite well. And he deftly captures Minnesota while he's at it.

  2. There is a very lengthy interview of Jonathan Franzen in the Winter 2010 issue of The Paris Review that his fans will enjoy. For others it may bring additional insight into his writing.