December 1, 2010

finding Freedom

franzen-freedom

I mentioned recently that I had devoured Jonathan Franzen’s latest book Freedom over the Thanksgiving holiday week, staying up late into the night (until 2, 3am) reading what is one of the best books to come across my nightstand in several years. A reader challenged me to write more about what I thought of it, and I find it really daunting to do so. This was a deeply piercing, near flawless book, and so hard to explain to others. Simply put, it’s a story of the inner lives of a damaged handful of folks over many years of struggle and conflicted motivations and messy decisions. There are some choice musical references woven in there for you folks who came looking here for a music reference (Jeff Tweedy is mythological friends with a main character here named Richard, a musician), along with smart political commentary and sharply incisive, eminently readable prose.

Yet through the intensity of Franzen’s words I found myself hit hard with deeper insights into the crags and stains in people I’ve loved or hurt or lost in real life. Broken love may be all we’ve got; or, as the book says, “There is, after all, a kind of happiness in unhappiness, if it’s the right unhappiness.” I devoured all 500+ pages over a handful of days, disregarding sleep to pick through those tangles of the lives of the characters with Franzen. The people he created seemed so real that they stood right up off the page beyond fiction. Several times I had to just stop and roll a sentence he wrote over in my head a few times to grasp at the ache and the tiny deaths it summed up.

This is a heavy, dense book that is clotted with a rich sadness and a fascinating glimpse into the lives of other people — all the things that are going on behind the faces that we see, and the observable circumstances that we think define or explain all of who a person is. That may sound like a depressing premise for a book, but it is actually obscenely fascinating. I was also surprised to find an unlikely redemption that hangs over the book and settles in once you get through it all. Let me explain with one simple allegory.



A few days after I finished Freedom, I was driving down a road that provides a direct vista towards Pikes Peak. It was sunset and I started musing about mountaintop removal, which figures heavily into the major plot of this book. One of the main characters, Walter, works for an organization that is trying to save a certain type of songbird by designating swaths of land on their migratory routes as sanctuaries. However, the way they accomplish being able to piece together the huge tracts of land necessary (and also co-desired by the mining companies) is to literally destroy it first – blow the tops off the mountains to get at the rich coal seams underneath, and let the mining companies have at it, voraciously, until it is gone. The land is then reconstituted and rehabilitated, and can grow back into a wilderness that will be forever untouched going forward. The songbirds get their home through destruction.

Maybe I was too close to the book to see it while I was reading it, but –in a moment that felt akin to lightning striking the top of my head– it suddenly became clear to me that mountaintop removal is an allegory for the entire book. It’s like looking at one of those 3D puzzles at the eye doctor where suddenly you can see the butterfly that wasn’t there before – I suddenly saw the allegory that is the whole damn point of the book. The total obliteration and violent blowing-up of everything that is beautiful and familiar, ancestral and home; the subsequent mining of the deep veins beneath the surface; with the end result of that new growth so desperately needed to make us whole — the creation of a sanctuary where one seemed thoroughly unlikely when looking only at the steaming wreckage in the recent past.

That’s the best I can do to describe this book, and the unpredictable way that I loved it. Let Amazon try to wrestle out the plot points enough to give you a summary; I’ll just say it is about having the tops blown off your mountains, and be okay with that simplicity.

There’s also a line repeated twice in the book, fanned out years apart in its occurrence, about how characters are “still figuring out how to live.” I guess if the allegory of mountaintop removal is a visual image of what this book is about, then that sentence kind of sums it up for you textual types. So many page corners in my copy are turned down, with razor-sharp words and phrases and twists of writing, noted and committed to memory. This is the first thing I have read by Franzen; it is absolutely superb, and painful. And worth it.


22 Comments »

  • oh wow.. best book review I’ve read in a while. I’ve walked past this book in the bookshop uncountable times, but it’s never drawn my attention (mainly, probably, because the cover I’ve seen it with is so much more boring than the one you’ve posted). I am absolutely going to buy it first chance I get now, though. Thank you!

    Emelie — December 2, 2010 @ 6:31 am

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cynthia Jones, Eversilences. Eversilences said: finding Freedom: I mentioned recently that I had devoured Jonathan Franzen’s latest book Freedom … http://bit.ly/fuT9ZW (fuelfriends) [...]

    Tweets that mention finding Freedom | Fuel/Friends Music Blog -- Topsy.com — December 2, 2010 @ 6:38 am

  • Absolutely brilliant, Heather. :)

    chad — December 2, 2010 @ 10:22 am

  • Read Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’ next, Heather. That book will also astound you.

    David — December 2, 2010 @ 10:23 am

  • it is on my big massive second shelf of books i’ve bought and need to read. next to infinite jest, ha.

    browneheather — December 2, 2010 @ 10:36 am

  • Damn, sounds like my kind of book. Thanks for the tip.

    Megan — December 2, 2010 @ 6:07 pm

  • I too rushed through Franzen’s beast of a novel in the days following its release earlier this September and was struck by the acutely realistic portrayal of characters and their feelings. I never thought of seeing mountaintop removal as a metaphor for the story’s larger themes, but was able to garner a similar conclusion based on the relationships in the story – Walter and Patty’s, Richard and Walter’s, Walter’s kid and his girlfriend (I’ve already forgotten their names!) My initial reaction to the book was that it was a depressing and cynical and hopeless portrait of American life, but I eventually came to find some solace and comfort in these characters’ relaitonships. They are traumatic and broken throughout much of the story, but the characters still forgive and move forward despite the wreckage they create.

    Good luck on the infinite jest aspirations–haven’t attempted it myself either–but i like the random dfw quotations you include. You may have read this if you’re a fan, but it’s a magical little speech/essay he wrote:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122178211966454607.html

    rick — December 3, 2010 @ 12:12 am

  • I read through Corrections on my hopeful journey to Freedom. Corrections was about a typical yet untypical Midwest family. Ethics were thrown out the window by the new generation. The old generation own ethics, both sexual and public were problematic as they were not grounded on anything other than self-interest and a base-less sense of propriety. The characters, like many of us, delved into a morass of moral selfishness and near sexual perversion. They did not suffer any more consequences, unlike our own experiences, than regret and confusion. They really did not follow their path to ultimate destruction, nor salvation. Their lives were a Godless exercise in existential inertia and futility. Once having had this experience in the Corrections (really no corrections of import made, just more mistakes) I am left unmotivated to experience Mr. Franzen’s Freedom.

    CastleQwayr — December 3, 2010 @ 5:15 am

  • Lovely writing.

    Made me think of this

    http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=7109

    Do you ever read Laura Barton in The Guardian – great piece on Tom Waits today.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/dec/02/hail-hail-rock-n-roll-tom-waits

    russell — December 3, 2010 @ 5:25 am

  • Thank you, Heather… I’m more eager than ever to read this book now!

    Also, the NPR program I produce for recently did an episode in rural Appalachia in which mountaintop removal mining was a central story… You can listen to it here:
    http://stateofthereunion.com/home/season-2/appalachia

    Tina — December 3, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

  • wonderful, thank you tina!

    browneheather — December 3, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

  • Your writing is wonderful; simple, poignant and lyrical. Thanks for your perspective…on the book, on the music, on the places. All my best!

    Adam — December 4, 2010 @ 10:25 am

  • I loved the Corrections but was hesitant to buy this after seeing the countless unfavorable reviews on Amazon. After reading your review, I’ll give it a try. The Corrections reminded me of the movie “Magnolia”, in that the characters in both the book and the movie were flawed but slowly, inexorably working their way towards redemption. “Let the Great World Spin” is another book that reminds me a little of “Magnolia”.

    Anne V. — December 5, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

  • Let The Great World Spin is sitting on that same bookshelf next to Infinite Jest. I need six months of no work and no blogging just to READ. :)

    browneheather — December 5, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

  • Great write-up! This book was on my end-of-summer reading list – the bad news is that I didn’t get to it, but the good news is your post just got me all excited about it again. Cannot wait for finals to be over so that I can trade my textbooks for Franzen and the like, at least for a few weeks.

    (sidenote: I chuckled at the end of paragraph two because I think ‘small deaths’ or ‘little deaths’ or ‘tiny deaths’ (?) refer to the female orgasm in old old english…not sure on the time period. But oddly enough, that was the meaning that first came to mind as I read, then quickly realized it wasn’t what you meant.)

    malzhuri — December 6, 2010 @ 12:02 am

  • yes, malzhuri, i knew that but it’s not what i meant. i’ve always liked that phrase.

    browneheather — December 6, 2010 @ 10:10 am

  • Thanks, Heather. An eloquent testimony for a book I will probably never read. I found The Corrections so dour and thick and depressing that I gave up halfway through, free of any desire to ever again read anything by Franzen. Always glad to read anything by Browne, tho. ;-)

    Jason — December 7, 2010 @ 11:13 pm

  • Having just come home from my book club where we spent the best part of three hours disecting ‘Freedom’ it was great to see that you too couldn’t stop reading it. I think it was an amazing book, political without preaching, and an amzing exploration into what it is to be free and how people’s freedom is determined by their own moral and emotional limits. As an Australian it is interesting to read how Americans use and view the concept of ‘freedom’, almost akin to the concept of “rights” and at time down-right scary. I am so glad that you enjoyed the book and I would urge everyone out there to read it and make up their own minds. Keep up the good work by the way!

    davros — December 8, 2010 @ 6:26 am

  • Since you followed my suggestion to review the book, I feel bad I haven’t had a chance to read this until now! You certainly did not disappoint, Heather.

    I love your interpretation of the mountaintop removal metaphor. I would add, though, that Walter’s quest was doomed from the start. Was it ever really anything more than just a cover for the coal mining industry? And so, is “the total obliteration and violent blowing-up of everything that is beautiful and familiar” a worthwhile experience? Many of us undertake such a project in our quest for freedom, but how often is it necessary or wise to do so? Is it worthwhile to inflict that kind of pain and damage on the other people in your life?

    Although I loved the book, I was frustrated by how Patty (especially) and Joey blew up their mountaintops, if you will, in their search for freedom and new growth, and I had difficulty sympathizing with them because of it. But that’s okay. One need not sympathize with all the characters to gain insight from a book.

    I’ll add to the chorus that you should read The Corrections. I may have liked that even more than Freedom, although it’s been a long 9 years since I read it. Let the Great World Spin wasn’t bad, but it was a bit overhyped for me and ended up being a letdown. My favorite of 2010, though, was The Hunger Games trilogy. You can read all three books in a weekend and will be absolutely blown away.

    Jeremy — December 10, 2010 @ 11:02 am

  • Just started this last night at your (and others’) recommendation, and I’m similarly addicted. I can’t focus at work because I was up so late reading and because I’m so eager to get back to it. Can’t wait to finish, and then follow up with The Corrections.

    Yeeeeah reading!

    Mallory — December 30, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

  • [...] first heard of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen through a blog post written by the brilliant Heather of the Fuel/Friends Music Blog. I don’t think I’ve [...]

    “he and his wife loved each other and brought each other daily pain” : Darling, I'm damned if I know — January 14, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

  • I wanted to save reading this for when I had actually finished the book and had more context.

    I shouldn’t be surprised by how well you write about books given the way you write about music, but I’m still surprised.

    I hadn’t noticed that MTR allegory until now. Thanks for that incite.

    I’m still processing the book a bit. But I definitely agree about some points, like the springing-out-of-the-page characters and the quality of the prose. I think, in the end, I may see it as a great-but-not-amazing book.

    Adrian — March 7, 2011 @ 1:06 pm

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. If you represent an artist or a label and would prefer that I remove a link to an mp3, please email me at browneheather@gmail.com

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