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??)
For the past few weeks, I went wandering back through the 10 best books I read in 2010. I conclude the year’s review with these fragmented thoughts on my favorite book of the year, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.
I know this is not the Franzen novel that everyone’s been talking about this year, but I hadn’t previously read any of his work and so I wanted to get started before Freedomcame out. My reservations about “modern” literature have already been briefly expressed, but I felt like they all dissolved after I had read The Corrections.
Franzen’s ability to inhabit the dreary, seemingly hopeless Lambert family is astonishing to me. At first glance, this sounds like a supremely boring book: This middle-class family is falling apart and the mild-mannered matriarch is obsessed with getting her whole disjointed family together for Christmas one last time. Why would anyone want to read a nearly 600-page tome about that?
Well, for one thing, because Franzen is a bit of a genius. I don’t know how he does it; I really don’t. Some critics called him a “prophet.” The Corrections came out a few weeks before 9/11. After we recovered from the shock, we began to realize that this novel was already proclaiming the domestic malaise that we would face in the post-9/11 world; it was a quiet and almost eerie warning.
To my mind, Franzen’s most impressive ability is his skill in replicating voices. Many authors do not write convincing characters of their opposite sex (Dickens and Per Petterson come to mind). Franzen does not seem troubled by this at all. In fact, I think the most believable character is the mother, Enid Lambert. Her gestures and fears are so perfectly expressed that you feel like you might have spent a lot of time with her at a long, fluorescent family reunion.
One of the most moving exchanges for me was a passage I have already written about here. Franzen most likely did not intend for this to be read religiously at all, but I read the exchange between the Lambert siblings, Denise and Chip, as the perfect description of the Gospel. We cannot stand to be forgiven. And yet over and over again, a beneficent Franzen offers his characters forgiveness. They are unwilling to extend or accept forgiveness, but they crave it, just like we do. The Corrections is a beautiful novel about the complex web of emotions that families create, but it is also a map through the labyrinth of familial tension; it’s letting you into the secret of the way out.
In short, it is one of the most full novels I have ever read. At the conclusion of David Gates’s review of The Corrections, he writes:
No one book, of course, can provide everything we want in a novel. But a book as strong as ”The Corrections” seems ruled only by its own self-generated aesthetic: it creates the illusion of giving a complete account of a world, and while we’re under its enchantment it temporarily eclipses whatever else we may have read.
The Corrections is lovely and sad and true. What more can you ask from a genuine work of art?
With that, I’ve spoken my peace about the 10 best books I read in 2010. Thanks for reading along. Now, onward to 2011! There is much to be conquered.
The gospel, as perhaps unintentionally portrayed in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.
(Back story: Chip owes his sister, Denise, $25,000, which he has borrowed over the course of a few years.)
His sister turned and raised her face to him. Her eyes were bloodshot, her forehead as red as a newborn’s. “I said I forgive the debt. You owe me nothing.”
“Appreciate it,” he said quickly, looking away. “But I’m going to pay you anyway.”
“No,” she said. “I’m not going to take your money. I forgive the debt. Do you know what ‘forgive’ means?”
In her peculiar mood, with her unexpected words, she was making Chip anxious. He pulled on the rivet and said, “Denise, come on. Please. At least show me the respect of letting me pay you back. I realize I’ve been a shit. But I don’t want to be a shit all my life.”
“I want to forgive that debt,” she said.
“Really. Come on.” Chip smiled desperately. “You’ve got to let me pay you.”
“Can you stand to be forgiven?”
“No,” he said. “Basically, no. I can’t.”