Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Harper Collins, $38.99
Meet Patty and Walter Berglund. At first glance, they seem like the archetypal American family, firmly rooted in Midwest suburbia, content and happy with their renovations, cupcakes and child rearing.
But first impressions can be deceiving, and Jonathan Franzen is a writer with a keen eye for lifting stones and revealing the fractures and fault lines that lie beneath modern life.
Freedom is a marathon story of familial dysfunction and white, middle-class malaise. As in his award-winning novel The Corrections, Franzen takes a somewhat sardonic view of life in the suburbs and the struggle for freedom that occurs within relationships, the community and the world.
He writes of the Berglund's slowly unravelling marriage in such a way as to make you feel that the characters are insects, caught squirming under the unrelenting gaze of his microscope.
The scenes are intensely examined and the descriptions are densely packed - nothing escapes his eagle eye.
Although Freedom is sharply focused on the Berglunds, there are several other threads of narrative weaving through the story: Patty and Walter's son, Joey, and his attempts to find his place in the world, Walter's alternative rock star best friend who is a catalyst to the breakdown of the marriage, and a larger dystopian view of environmental issues and the dangers of population growth.
There's a lot to take in, so it's no wonder this book weighs in at a hefty 562 pages - Freedom has the sheer physicality of an epic novel.
There's no doubt that Franzen has a special talent for turning the mediocre into compelling writing. There is nothing special about his characters, and this is where his gift is evident. Franzen doesn't shy away from recording every nuance of everyday life and does it in a remarkably unsympathetic way.
His writing is strangely remote and this serves to make the reader feel as if they're witnessing a situation rather than experiencing it.
I find this technique makes it difficult to immerse you fully in the story and stops the reader from engaging with the characters on an emotionally satisfying level. The prose is sometimes clunky and in any other writer this would be taken as a flaw. However, because it's Franzen, it can be overlooked as "style".
Given the hype surrounding this book, I would have expected some breathtaking passages and characterisation, but ultimately I was disappointed. Though the main female character of Patty is well drawn, the other women in the book are unrecognisable to me.
In particular, the character of Connie gives a whole new meaning to the term "doormat".
"You don't have to love me," she says at one point. "I can just love you."
Perhaps this is Franzen's humour. He's described Freedom as: "A comedy about a family in crisis", and although there are funny moments in the book, they verge more on tragicomedy than actual humour.
But the real question hanging over this book is whether it's the "great American novel".
So is it? Well, kind of, depending on who you talk to. The expectation surrounding this release has been enormous. Time magazine recently crowned Franzen as the "King of American Letters" and the debate surrounding the literary merit of the book has raged on message boards across the world.
I think it's another modern interpretation of a well-worn genre. The narrative is strong and it forces you to keep reading. It's entertaining and, despite its faults, compelling.
However, given all the hype, I couldn't help but feel that there is a touch of The Emperor's New Clothes about this offering and that perhaps it's really middle-of-the road, middle-of- the-suburbs angst dressed up as a literary marvel.