A study of society

2010-10-13 00:00

EVEN though it has only just been published, it is already becoming difficult to separate Jonathan Franzen’s novel from the hype that has surrounded it, particularly in America where Franzen is being lionised­ by the literary establishment as the great American novelist of the 21st century.

Jodi Picoult is among those who have taken issue with that, saying that she, and other (particularly female) writers of commercial fiction, are being overlooked and are doing something not so different from Franzen.

She may have a point, but on the evidence of Freedom, Franzen does do it better (though I would have to query why great American novels have to be so long). But this is a superb book, and as accessible as any ‘commercial’ fiction. I’m not sure I would be able to draw a line anyway, with ‘literary’ writing on one side, and ‘commercial’ on the other. The Picoult angle seems to be whether or not you get reviewed in the New York Times (also at enormous length).

Franzen’s novel covers a time span from the late 1970s until the present, and centres on Walter and Patty Berglund. Walter is one of those who is always out of his time: a teetotal nerd, banging on about overpopulation in his university days when sex, drugs and rock ’n roll were in; and an ancient hippy in his late middle age, still banging on about overpopulation but somehow always out of step with the trends of the times. Patty, having been a sporting heroine at university, becomes a perfect mom — at least for a while.

Theirs is not a marriage made in heaven, although it appears so on the surface. Patty has always fancies Walter’s best friend, rocker Richard­ Katz, more than she fancied Walter. Is it this or is it Walter’s treatment of her, his “rabid fandom”, that is turning her into a hard-drinking termagant, driving her beloved son Joey into the arms of their Republican neighbours? Franzen explores American life through the microcosm of the Berglunds, focusing on each of them in turn — what has made them who they are, and where they, and their wider society, are going.

It is a book that shows the compromises and ironies that life demands, and is a fine study of a society and the individuals who make it up. A moving, often funny, sprawl of a book.

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