Yes, it is soap-opera addictive. Yes, it is totally American in its hatred/obsession with the modern “family." Yes, it is makes you chuckle at the (somehow) failing liberalism of your parents and their friends. And yes, it is a great big splash for the American novel, one of the largest in hype and Oprah-love and page-count this year.
As a result, the American reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s nine-year mega-novel are extremely generous. Freedom is called a "masterpiece” by the New York Times. He made it to the cover of Time Magazine under the capricious headline “Great American Novelist.” But Canadians, as usual, tend to think his “cover-boy” fame should be shared with heavyweights like Rick Moody and Jeffrey Eugenides, who have penned a few Great American novels of their own. Zsuzsi Gartner thinks as much in this review. British reviewer Keith Miller opines that Franzen is dabbling in some “watered-down experimentalism,” but admits Freedom is “achingly sad.” Both reviewers point to David Foster Wallace as a stronger, more experimental, and obviously influential “Great American,” who’s work we’ve only seen in too-small doses. Now that is achingly sad.
As for Freedom, Jonathan Franzen, I’ll give you quirky and character-driven and funny (in moments) and hard to put down. I read your 562-page novel in a week. But in that week, I wondered why this all seemed so important to everyone: do Americans really care that much about family? About the inferiority complex of Mid-Westerners? Does a novel’s theme need to be pounded out so thoroughly? Does long mean good? Does readable mean great?
Dave Hickey will hate Freedom, and that gives me a profound sense of relief. This week, I’m turning to Infinite Jest for a taste of the Great American Novel. And in future, I’ll turn to Franzen for a good beach read… pleasant and gossipy and modern in just the right watered-down way.