Saturday, October 19, 2013

Review, Jonathan Franzen Book

Bewitched by Jonathan Franzen

I’ve repeated at our writers’ workshop what I was once told by a literary agent:
Just because something is true to life doesn’t make it interesting.
Agents and editors advise us fiction writers that successful plots require tension with a capital T. Secondly, a sympathetic, or at least exciting, protagonist is essential. As we writers discover, rules are made to prove the exceptions.

First encounter
Last December I visited son Jason and Ellen (dtr.-in-law), and while in their home I picked up a copy of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Before I could get to the middle of the story (it’s 600 pages), it was time for me to leave. The initial pages not only describe a typical American wife but provide pithy insights into personality and society. It’s a story with more insights than action. However, by the time I left Jason and Ellen’s place, the author’s descriptive analyses had overwhelmed me, and I stopped reading the book with little if any curiosity about what happened to Patty, the female character.

Return to the scene of the crime
In September I returned to my son’s home for a visit and picked up Freedom again. Without knowing where I’d stopped before, I opened to a random page and started reading. Though the events of the plot were hazy in my memory, I recognized the main characters, Patty and Walter. The plot continued to be mundane, but I read until it was time to leave again, and I still hadn’t finished the book. I put it down without a thought of picking it up again.
However, now I may buy the book to read the end. I ask myself, Why? In Freedom’s characters, I found out more than I ever wanted to know about people’s motives, insecurities, and longings. Even at that, the characters are none too appealing. In particular, Patty is wimpy, dependent, and ordinary. Even her neuroses are typically American. The plot trudges along in everyday life and has no more tension than waiting in line at the supermarket. I can see truth in what Franzen is saying, but nothing very exciting takes place. I don’t even care what happens to the characters. What is it about this novel that keeps tugging at me?

Hooked on the writer
I’ve decided that I haven’t fallen for Franzen’s story, I’ve been taken in by the writer himself. His love of studying people and what makes them tick permeates his writing and imposes a barely perceptible but certain urgency. Even commonplace people and events fascinate him, and he conveys this passion to the reader. If the narrative is long-winded, Franzen pulls it off in a tone that quietly insists he’s telling us something we need to know. He’s like a salesman who can convince you to buy cat food when you don’t own a cat.

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