A Careful Look at Freedom

Freedom Part 1: A Spoiler-Free Review

Some fiction writers use fantastical elements to get us behind the curtain of reality. Once there, they use the extraordinary to speak about the ordinary.

C.S. Lewis takes us through an ordinary painting to get us into the extraordinary world of Narnia, where he then takes us on a voyage to God. Lewis Carroll takes us through an ordinary rabbit hole to get us into the extraordinary world of Wonderland, where a little girl has hopped down in order to learn how to grow up.

Of course, some authors only have great imaginations and clever plot devices; once we leave the world of the ordinary, we are disappointed when they lack the gift of insight to bring us back.

There is an unspoken agreement between the reader of fiction and the writer of fiction: take me out of the ordinary, using whatever extraordinary means you can best connive, so long as you bring me back changed. Use the extraordinary to point out an insight I otherwise would have missed without the benefit of your imaginative spotlight.

Then there are other writers—writers like Leo Tolstoy, F. Scott Fitzgerald—who have the more difficult task of keeping us in the bounds of the ordinary while still needing something extraordinary to spotlight the insight we otherwise would have missed. If they refuse, for whatever reason, to alter the physics of reality, then the extraordinary must be one of two things: the extraordinariness of their insight, or the extraordinariness of their prose. For some writers, writers like Jonathan Franzen, it is both.

Before we go any further, I must point out that I am withholding my O seal of approval on this book.

My opinion of it rests somewhere between B.R. Myers’ harsh review in the Atlantic, and the stirling accolades of Lev Grossman’s review in Time Magazine, “Jonathan Franzen: Great American Novelist.

(the reading of Grossman’s review emitted an annoyed and humorous chuckle when I read his line, “A lot of literary fiction strikes a bargain with the reader…” reminding me again that there is nothing new under the sun, as I wrote a similar line for my own review)

It may not get a Rivene R, but Franzen’s work is, nevertheless, a damned fine novel.

**stop now if you don’t want any spoilers, as I have to discuss the structure of the book to discuss how my review will look moving forward**

Franzen engages the reader with his Eeyore-like prose, his vivid insights into American history and culture, and the interesting manner in which he explores the inner workings of a family.

Unfortunately, it also has at its heart this family—the Berglunds. Somewhere around 2/3 the way through the novel, I realized that I had no connection with any of the characters, who had lost my sympathies. Franzen spent so much time pursuing his thesis (more on this later) that he had lost me in caring about his characters. What began with such promise developed into something that I can only explain by pointing to another story that elicited a similar response, Requiem for a Dream.

Nevertheless, for almost 400 pages Franzen engaged me with the idea of his book, which begs the question, why did he write it?

It seemed to me,” Franzen says, “that if we were going to be elevating freedom to the defining principle of what we’re about as a culture and a nation, we ought to take a careful look at what freedom in practice brings.

The story oscillates between the POV of four of its characters: Patty, Richard, Joey, and Walter. Franzen uses each of these characters to highlight the different ways that Americans pursue their ideals of freedom, and the results therefrom.

It seemed fitting, therefore, to tackle each of these different pursuits in this review. To do so, we will explore–in four parts–what Franzen’s characters have to say about our own pursuits. The fifth and final part of the review will be a study on what the Bible has to say about freedom and its pursuit.

I invite you to join Rivene’s Journey next week, as we take a careful look at freedom by exploring the life of Patty Berglund.