FICTION: Freedom (2010)

The New York Times loved it; The Atlantic hated it. It was lauded as the book of the decade, but garnered as many 1-star reviews on Amazon as 5-star reviews. Curious to see what the fuss was about, I tackled Jonathan Franzen’s 576-page novel via the most modern of media, my iPad. An excerpt from Freedom, the account of Patty’s parents’ trivializing reaction to her rape, had already been published in the New Yorker under the title “Agreeable,” and the short story had been so very good that I thought the novel might actually live up to the hype. It does in the Patty parts, but the Walter parts are so unabidably awful that the book is a mixed bag.

Patty is a lovable character, so coherently drawn that you can hear her speak out loud in your head when you read her lines of dialogue; you enjoy being with her and you root for her. Her Westchester County parents have endless energy for doing good in the world, as a pro bono lawyer and a state legislator respectively, but are unable to love or nurture their oldest daughter at home. Yet she escapes to Minnesota and, after developing self-esteem as a talented basketball player at the U, becomes widely admired in her St. Paul neighborhood as a hospitable and dedicated homemaker. Her ensuing carefully chronicled mistakes provoke sympathy, while you admire her strength and her capacity for self-renewal.

Franzen’s book is strongest when he focuses on Patty, because she’s the best character in it, and particularly strong when he gets inside her brain, as in the immortal narrative of what transpires at Nameless Lake when Patty finds herself alone with her husband Walter’s best friend Richard, for whom she’s had a thing her whole life. This is easily my favorite paragraph in the book: “There were very odd angles in her cutting of the potatoes. They looked like some kind of geometric brainteaser.” What a lovely way to convey the turmoil in Patty, between her desire for Richard, so close to finding its way out, and her imperfect but earnest moral conscience. The reader becomes deeply emotionally involved along with her.

However, it’s too much of a stretch to care in the same way about Walter, as the book would ideally require that you do. Richard is something of a caricature, yes (a rock musician?! for god’s sake), but Walter is just impossible to really understand. His fanatic passion for environmentalism—for conserving endangered species and limiting human population growth—is tiresome and absurd, and the way in which he goes about his aims, via the snootily named Cerulean Mountain Trust, is a drag to read about. This segment of the novel largely functions as a vehicle for name-dropping any number of contemporary American events and personages in order to look “relevant” and hip.

And the worst stain upon the story is Walter’s extramarital “love” for his assistant Lalitha, a cartoon of orientalism and paternalism which Franzen is irresponsible to perpetuate. It is not enough to introduce her as “Indian. Bengali. She grew up in Missouri,” but the author feels compelled to repeatedly describe her after that as “dark-skinned,” too many times, for no reason. She’s twenty years younger than Walter, “brilliant,” passionate (of course), has a cute accent (despite having grown up in Missouri?), and can’t wait to get in his heart and in his pants. Christ. The narrator’s own drooling over this oh-so-exotic, one-dimensionally nubile girl is revolting. I hate the fetishizing tone with which Lalitha’s character is sketchily and implausibly drawn.

It’s hard enough for us “minority” readers to navigate a world of books, movies, and TV shows in which the woman is always the love interest, the person of color is always the sidekick, and the gay person is always the friend (how rarely these people get to be the protagonist; and progress in society can hardly be made until viewers of mainstream media can get inside our skin, feel with our hearts, see with our eyes). But it’s a step backwards on top of that for Franzen to give us Lalitha, especially when his name carries cultural weight. Every page about her is offensive, and we know from the Patty passages that the author is capable of much better.

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