Third quarter has started. The dark, bleak days of winter have begun. The time has come for something fun to read. So what book do I pick? “Freedom” by Jonathan Frazen: a novel about bad marriages, depression, ruined lives and the faults of capitalism.
“Nice people don’t necessarily fall in love with nice people.”
This quote summarizes the novel perfectly. There are so many relationships within this book that are based entirely around this concept. When thinking back over the book, it is apparent that Frazen is gifted at creating heart-rending storylines between two people. Unfortunately, his shortcomings become apparent when trying to describe the serious situations he sets up.
The first of these situations is marriage. It is clear that Frazen has had no experience with a mature marriage. He writes about the connection between a married couple the same as if I had written it: with no knowledge of what he is talking about.
The story focuses around one family and the relationships within. Every generation of the family seems to have a dysfunctional marriage. While Frazen is a brilliant writer and is thus able to make you feel the emotions he wants, it is almost distracting to read about a married couple in their fifties arguing as if they were squabbling, hormone filled teenagers.
“There is, after all, a kind of happiness in unhappiness, if it’s the right unhappiness.”
This quote addresses the second serious issue within the novel: depression. It strikes almost every character within the novel at some point. Some have it thrust upon them by the events in their lives while for some it is a mental disorder. However, once again, Frazen fails to capture it.
He romanticises the feelings that go hand in hand with depression. He makes it seem cool, much as a cigarette ad convinces you that the negative side effects aren’t as bad as they seem. He shows depression as something to be proud of, a pendant for your uniform. The writing in these passages feels bland and the reader is forced to wonder if Frazen has actually felt true emotion.
“The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.”
The one aspect of the book that places Frazen in the realm of brilliance is his topic of choice: freedom. He talks about freedom from parents, freedom from debt, the freedoms we are given in the US and freedom in relationships. Every character in the book is faced with some obstacle preventing them from obtaining true freedom. He even ties in the Bush era government, showing how their environmental plans limit many civilian freedoms. Frazen is actually able to make politics an interesting subject within the novel and the chapters on environmental projects were some of the most entertaining.
Finally, I have to make a recommendation, but with a warning. Yes you should read this book. But, it is graphic and repulsive and depressing and disgusting and amazing and infuriating and perverted. In the middle of the novel, I threw the book against my wall and had to go for a run in fresh air so I could feel normal again. I would take this book in small doses. But it is definitely a must read and one of the best works of modern American literature out there.