Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Shane's book 31, 2010)

Expectations can dictate so much about how one responds to a book. Before Freedom was even released, I'd read numerous articles acclaiming it as a new classic. Many critics immediately handed it the title of Book of Year. It would take an extraordinary work of literature to live up to such hype but this book is not extraordinary. It's barely even a work of literature. (I should warn you that there are minor spoilers in what follows.) [amtap book:isbn=0007269757]

In fact, Freedom is a middle-brow, middle class soap opera that follows the Berglund family through the 2000s. Walter is a humourless conservationist, seemingly lacking self awareness and any common sense. His wife Patty is self-absorbed and overly impressed by her abilities as a mother. Their son Joey is an irritating brat and their daughter Jessica is dully perfect, though Franzen wheels her out only occasionally to show her disappointment in one of the other characters.

The novel opens with a free-floating exploration of the Berglund's neighbourhood with the family story being filled in by gossip, neighbourly opinion and authorial intervention. It works very well but Franzen changes gear and, with the clumsiness of the too-convenient plot device he uses later, drives his car off a cliff.

The next section is Patty's autobiography, written at the behest of her therapist, and it exposes Franzen's weaknesses from the outset. Patty has opted to write in third person, which seems like an odd thing for anyone to do, particularly for such an un-intellectual character as Patty. She gives an unconvincing reason for this choice but it's hard to avoid the feeling that Franzen simply can't write convincingly in the first person.

Patty sounds like Franzen. At one point she writes: "There's a hazardous sadness to the first sounds of someone else's work in the morning; it's as if stillness experiences pain in being broken."

We're supposed to think she's started writing like this because she's been reading War and Peace but this apparent blossoming of literary sensibility is short-lived. There is no sign of this intelligence and awareness in anything she says or does in the later parts of the novel. Indeed, she sounds awful much of the time, at one point telling another character: "You were like a bad drug I couldn't stop craving."

Perhaps she said that after an extended binge on Jackie Collins.

Much of what happens in Patty's autobiography, and what throws the Berglunds into turmoil, revolves around Richard Katz, Walter's best friend and a drearily cliched 'rock star'. Patty is attracted to him from their first meeting, at college, but settles for the safer, more predictable Walter. As the years go by, Richard periodically swaggers through the narrative, trailing drink, drugs and women and giving off all the charisma of a Poundland Iggy Pop.

But Franzen is determined to use this family to analyse the age and address its problems, all of which are neatly summed up thus:

"Why the conservatives, who controlled all three branches of the federal government, were still so enraged - at respectful skeptics of the Iraq War, at gay couples who wanted to get married, at bland Al Gore and cautious Hillary Clinton, at endangered species and their advocates, at taxes and gas prices that were among the lowest of any industrialised nation, at a mainstream media whose corporate owners were themselves conservative, at the Mexicans who cut their grass and washed their dishes - was something mysterious to Walter."

The problem is that all of those things are mysterious to Franzen too. Avowedly liberal, he can't imagine himself into a conservative mind, either through lack of ability as a writer or simply through disgust. Either way, it leaves his book fatally flawed. The villains here are all conservatives and all so starkly evil that they might as well be twiddling their moustaches and cackling maniacally.

So Walter, who is such an achingly right-on liberal that he's almost a caricature, eventually gets a job running a trust dedicated to saving a near-extinct bird. However, in doing so he is forced into compromise: the land for the trust comes from an (evil, conservative) oil baron who will also be using some of the land for coal mining by mountaintop removal - a particularly environmentally-unfriendly process and one that will require a lot of locals to be rehoused.

This seems like such a stupidly one-sided deal that it's hard to believe that Walter can accept it. The reader is left to conclude that Walter must be an utter fool.

Briefly, Walter has everything he wants, including a passionate affair with his young assistant, who has to be crudely removed from the plot later so that Franzen can begin his finale. Soon, though, the inevitable happens and Walter's project collapses.

While Walter has become compromised by his bird trust, Joey is being led astray by his own greed and hunger for power. Needless to say, he runs into some (evil, conservative) villains. There's his roommate's father, who tells him over Thanksgiving dinner how he and his friends are trying to persuade the president to "exploit" the "unique historical moment" brought about by the September 11th attacks on America and bring 'freedom' to the Middle East.

In an awful scene that is meant to demonstrate the boy's intellectual prowess, Joey disputes the man's politics with a series of trite platitudes that bring only trite platitudes in response. "You had him on the ropes," Joey's roommate tells him, wrongly.

Anyway, Joey forgets his intellectual objections and is lured over to the dark side by the promise of money. He ends up being paid a lot of money by an (evil, conservative) entrepreneur to source vehicle parts on the cheap and ship them to Iraq. Once again, it's such an obvious scam that the reader sees through it from the outset and becomes frustrated with the characters.

Franzen continually refers to the notion of Freedom, just in case you forget that that's what the book is called, but perhaps Competition would be a better title. People are continually being beaten by each other in the book. Patty's neighbour, Linda, concludes that Patty is "too dangerous an adversary to be tackled head-on", for example, and "Joey has Jessica pretty well beaten" at one point. It's mostly Patty who sees the world this way but it happens with Richard and Walter too.

There's something misanthropic about this view of people, even lovers, being constantly in competition. It's an idea that would seem to belong to Franzen's conservative villains, rather than his liberal heroes and it's not an idea that Franzen handles sensitively.

And since Franzen brought up War and Peace - even comparing Walter to Pierre - it's worth noting that Freedom displays little of the tenderness or subtlety that makes Tolstoy's novel a masterpiece. Franzen's characters are hard to empathise with and his social commentary is superficial and weak.

That's not to say that this is a terrible book. It's a soap with plenty of twists and turns but Franzen rarely gets below the surface of things, seldom offers anything profound. It's that failure that leaves him short of literary brilliance and in the context of the hype surrounding it, Freedom is a disappointment. If this really is the latest Great American Novel then we'll have to revise our expectations downwards. 'Great' clearly doesn't mean what it used to.