Tuesday, 28 December 2010

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Blah blah. "Blah blah blah," blah blah. Blah blah blah? Blah! I read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom because everybody else did and now distinctly wish I hadn't. It's a long book that's as artfully structured as it is poorly executed, which is the polite way of saying that everyone and everything in it sounded exactly the same—except for the inelegant passages that explicitly didn't.* Perhaps because I arrived at graduate school intending to study literature's most skillful mimic, this problem bothers me more than it would the average reader. Then again, I don't think it snobbish of me to insist that when portions of a novel consist of autobiographical fragments written by a broken woman at the behest of her therapist, those bits should sound different than the bits narrated by an omniscient third party. My logic feels particularly compelling when the chapters in question bear a title like "Mistakes Were Made: Autobiography of Patty Berglund by Patty Berglund (Composed at Her Therapist's Suggestion)." Truth be told, the decision to title the chapters thus strikes me as an admission of failure: because Franzen neglected to capture his character's voice, the distinction between these chapters and the others had to be made explicit or the vocal homogeneity might have confused the reader. I don't think it would have, though: if the autobiographical frame had been removed, it would have read like the rest of the imbricated chapters. The decision to emphasize Patty's story by inserting her first-hand account of events makes a certain amount of sense, as does the decision to do so by having her write about herself in the third person. (Broken people needing distancing mechanisms when confronting their own lives and what-not.) But by writing her autobiographical fragment in the same style as the rest of the novel, what should have functioned as an attention-drawing peak in the mountain range of the narrative instead appeared to be just another hill among many. Moreover, in a book of this length, the droning of a single voice frustrates, especially when 1) everyone in the novel sounds like the narrator and 2) the events unfolding in the narrative are already known to the reader. It's the equivalent of hearing the same story told by the same person on consecutive days for the better part of a week. No matter how ingenious the story itself or its telling is, the differencelessness quickly becomes insufferable. (All the more so when, as in Freedom, difference is an unkept promise.) I'm giving the story itself short shrift, but only because I believe I would have found it more to my favor if I'd read it in short bursts instead of one long haul. That said—and this is a minor spoiler, so stop reading if you want to read the book despite my glowing review—someone needs to tell Franzen to stop putting women in refrigerators. *E.g. the elder sister-cum-yogi who says "verrrry" and the conservative caricature whose speech is limited to paraphrasing talking points from FOXNews and the Bible.

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