Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Freedom (#4)

Freedom.

#4: FREEDOM, Jonathan Franzen.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

I’m perpetually astonished when people say they don’t like Jonathan Franzen. Or say that he’s overrated. Or that they find his books boring. It floors me every time. Because I am so in love with Jonathan Franzen. I think he is doing for the modern American novel what Tolstoy did for the modern Western novel. Freedom is a good example of why I think that.

This much-anticipated and much-hyped book came out in summer of 2010, but I wasn’t able to get it at the library until early 2011. Everyone was reading it. And for good reason. As the New York Times called it in a judicious review, it’s simply “a masterpiece of American fiction.” That’s a fair assessment. Not many American novels published since Freedom can match its scope, insight, and ambition.

Franzen writes primarily about families and about the terrible, domestic things they can do to each other, often in subtle and unintentional ways. Freedom tells the story of the failing marriage of Walter and Patty Berglund. The arrival of Walter’s long-time best friend, jaded, old rockstar Richard Katz, and the introduction of Walter’s pretty, idealistic assistant, Lalitha, further complicate the Berglund’s already complicated relationship. In their estrangement from one another, Patty seeks therapy and a deeper relationship with Richard Katz, while Walter becomes even more extreme about his environmental activism and edges closer to an affair with Lalitha. But, amid all of this unraveling, Franzen permits us to care deeply about Patty and Walter and hope for some form of reconciliation.

As part of Patty’s therapy, her counselor asks her to write her autobiography. We are privileged to read chapters of Patty’s autobiography in the novel, and I would claim that her parts are some of the best in the entire book. Patty Berglund is an incredible character and she is the main reason why anyone should read Freedom. I don’t think I’ve met a character this past year who was so living and tangible. Her voice is sympathetic, honest, and believable, and in the hands of a gifted, precise Franzen, she becomes the simultaneously compassionate and pitiful protagonist. We are cheering for Patty throughout the novel; we desperately want her to get her happy ending, a slice of the American Dream.

On the whole, I think The Corrections (which was ranked my no. 1 novel I read last year) may be his better work. But this is wholeheartedly worth every second of your time. It was the Great Novel of 2010 and it stands to be reckoned with for many years after that.

Jonathan Franzen has his finger solidly on the pulse of American life and Freedom is proof of his accuracy and attention to our modernized and isolated existences. The grace and mercy he extends his characters is breathtaking. His novels, in a strange and perhaps unintentional way, make us ache for Someone to extend the same kind of grace and mercy over our own isolated lives.

(P.S. The only thing I didn’t like about Freedom was its cover. What is that dumb blue bird doing there? Why is he way out of proportion? What does he want??)

My favorite morally bankrupt characters

I don’t like overly sunny novels. I can’t stand to read about ridiculously virtuous characters. As a child, I hated Nancy Drew (“Nancy tossed her blond hair over her shoulder and called, ‘Ned! Wait for me,’ as she jumped into his shiny red convertible…”) and flatly rejected those utterly dreadful books for Christian girls, like Elsie Dinsmore and The Basket of Flowers. Barf. Even when I was little, I formed the strong opinion that saints and angels make for really tedious and boring literature.

I like reading books with complex characters, with fictional people who have both virtue AND vice, people whose stories don’t always get that shiny, happy ending. I like to read about real life. This is why I shun most of Dickens, most of the Victorians, and most fantasy literature. I don’t think it’s wrong or terrible; it’s just not my thing.

That being said, I tend to enjoy a lot of books with unhappy endings and messy characters. Here are some of my favorite morally bankrupt characters.

SCARLETT O’HARA
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

Scarlett is the pretty poster child for morally bankrupt characters. I had seen the movie many years before I got around to reading Mitchell’s novel, and when I did, the full force of Scarlett’s personality hit me even stronger than it did on film. Mitchell managed to make someone wicked and admirable at the same time. Scarlett is selfish, manipulative, and conniving — and yet we are pulling for her the whole time. Regardless of the unpleasant racial controversies of this book, I think it is hard to deny the genius of a writer who can create a character as complex and multifaceted as this one.

BAZAROV
Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev

Bazarov is a snob. He’s like those kids who go off to grad school and become unbearably pretentious about… everything. Turgenev uses Bazarov as a standard for the young Nihilists of his Russia, the men of reason and science, rejecting all tradition and forms of authority. Bazarov fits his archetype neatly — he’s absurdly arrogant and vain — and yet, we feel for him. He gets his heart broken, even though he won’t admit it. He has a magnetic effect on people, even though no one wants to admit to actually liking him. Bazarov reminds me that people that I am quick to write off with a certain label are never that simple — and always deserving of more time and mercy.

PATTY BERGLUND
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

Patty Berglund isn’t exactly “morally bankrupt;” rather, she doesn’t seem to know where her morals stand exactly. This might be the hallmark of Franzen’s characters (from what I can glean from the cast of people in The Corrections and Freedom, both of which I unashamedly love). Patty represents, to me, the best of what Franzen can do. She is made so real in the pages of this novel that you finish it feeling that she is your best friend, that well-loved person  In my opinion, she makes the entire novel. She is downcast and confused, but she is painfully honest and reflective about her life and its variegated failures. If we could all be as truthful with ourselves as Patty Berglund, we could learn a tremendous amount about life.

MR. HENRY WILCOX
Howards End, E.M. Forster

Mr. Wilcox is a crueler version of Jack Donaghy: He’s rich, controlling silver fox who lives by conservative business morals and generally gets whatever he wants. Including the novel’s heroine, Margaret Schlegel. Margaret is not so easily bought, however, and her goodness eventually softens Mr. Wilcox — but not before he has been brutal, demanding, and insensitive toward practically every character. Still. You like him. He doesn’t back down. And even this crusty old miser has a soft spot.

RASKOLNIKOV
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

He murdered his old landlady with an axe for no good reason! Pinnacle of morally bankrupt. But the novel is about his SOUL. And it’s a great one. So, this book is always worth reading. (My father, by the way, still has not fulfilled his end of our challenge. He sent me a text that said: “I used to love naps. Now I hate them. Because I have to read Crime and Punishment.”)

MRS. RAMSAY
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

OK, so “morally bankrupt” is also far too strong a description for Mrs. Ramsay, but she’s no angel. The central character of my all-time favorite novel, Mrs. Ramsay is usually an overbearing, controlling matriarch. She sets up people who don’t necessarily want to be set up. She insists on domestic tranquility, even when emotions may need to be forcibly expressed. But I will always love Mrs. Ramsay, mainly because she is one of the deepest and most intricately drawn characters I have ever met. She chooses to live by the way of grace–and she lives well, in spite of herself.

How about you? Any quasi-villains or just ignoble characters you love reading about?