Jonathan Franzen

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August 2010.

Available in hardcover, CD, digital audio, and ebook formats.

Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

Author Jonathan Franzen, an avid birder, has trained his binoculars here on a different species: Homo sapiens. While he does deal extensively with our fine feathered friends in his new novel Freedom, people are his focus. Cataloging the behavior of humans in their natural habitat has become his specialty. And one of the devices he uses in this book is memoir for the voice of a character named Patty Berglund.

Franzen published The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History, in 2007 prior to writing this novel. I asked him about the effect of the proximity of these two works when he stopped in Austin, Texas, on September 17 during his Freedom book tour around the country.

“Did writing your own memoir so recently perhaps influence your choice of that format for Patty’s voice in Freedom?”

“Maybe,” he replied, after a thoughtful pause in the question-and-answer session at BookPeople.“That’s an original question, one of the most original I’ve had in a while. So ‘Maybe’ is a sloppy answer to a really great question. I’ll have to think about that.”

Franzen employs the question-and-answer format to good effect in Freedom when a teenage boy hoping to impress a girl with an online post interviews a rock-star character named Richard Katz. Richard’s personality shines through in that five-page exchange far better than if the two characters had been merely conversing.

Within the Q&A interview, Franzen also embeds an editorial about rock and roll, revolutions, Apple Computers, antiwar movements, and Republicans via Richard’s answers.

Franzen presents Patty Berglund’s two-part memoir as an autobiography: “’MISTAKES WERE MADE: Autobiography of Patty Berglund’ by Patty Berglund (Composed at Her Therapist’s Suggestion).” The first portion near the novel’s beginning has three chapters: “Agreeable,” “Best Friends,” and “Free Markets Foster Competition.”

Patty starts out by thanking various coaches and teachers who trained her as an athlete, which “helped make up for her morbid competitiveness and low self-esteem.” Next she describes her family, blending facts with feelings: “Patty grew up in Westchester County, New York. She was the oldest of four children, the other three of whom were more like what her parents had been hoping for. She was notably Larger than everybody else, also Less Unusual, also measurably Dumber. Not actually dumb but relatively dumber.” Her height affords her not only the ability to be a basketball star but also an insight: She “was never going to fit into the family anyway.”

Patty offers asides as judgments about earlier actions seen through the lens of years as she ponders the events of her life. She footnotes later thoughts with asterisks: “It occurred to Patty…that maybe the reason….Not that there was anything she could have done about it.” And in another place: “But she needed a modicum of time and breathing space, and even taking into account her youth and inexperience the autobiographer is embarrassed to report that her means of buying this time and space was to bring the conversation around, perversely, to….”

She analyzes: “Few circumstances have turned out to be more painful to the autobiographer, in the long run, than….” And later: “Where did the self-pity come from?…The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.” (The concept of freedom is viewed from many angles all throughout Freedom.)

Patty utilizes a pro-and-con debate format within her memoir as if putting herself on trial, weighing the morality of one of her actions — and in the process her entire marriage:

“For the defense: Patty had tried, at the outset, to warn….

For the prosecution: ….Patty was the one….

For the defense: But she was trying to be good…!

For the prosecution: Her motives were bad….

For the defense: She loved her kids!

For the prosecution: ….She knew what she was doing and she didn’t stop….trapped in a housewife’s life….

For the defense: ….It wasn’t her fault….

For the prosecution: It was her fault….

For the defense: But she didn’t know that! She thought she was doing the right thing by giving her kids the attention and the love her own parents hadn’t given her.

For the prosecution: She did know it, because Walter told her, and told her, and told her.

For the defense:  ….She thought she had to…be the good cop because Walter was the bad cop.

For the prosecution: ….The problem was between Patty and Walter, and she knew it.

For the defense: She loves Walter!

For the prosecution: The evidence suggests otherwise.

For the defense: Well, in that case, Walter doesn’t love her, either. He doesn’t love the real her. He loves some wrong idea of her.

For the prosecution: That would be convenient if only it were true….

For the defense: It isn’t fair to say she doesn’t love him!

For the prosecution: If she can’t behave herself, it doesn’t matter if she loves him.”

Patty blames, even attempting to palm off her guilt over an affair on Leo Tolstoy as she reads War and Peace:  “The autobiographer wonders if things might have gone differently if she hadn’t reached the very pages in which Natasha Rostov….”

As she puts her life onto paper, Patty works out her emotions through such comments as: “Though this barely scratches the surface, it’s already more than the autobiographer intended to say about those years, and she will now bravely move on.” In some paragraphs, Patty approaches eloquence — as can happen when writing through pain and veering toward honest emotion.

This review will be continued on Monday, September 27, 2010. Lanie will reveal more about her encounter with the author during a book reading in Austin, TX. You won’t want to miss it.

Lanie Tankard

Please leave comments if you have read the book or other reviews, interviews, etc., and have any reactions to share. Lanie and I have both been thinking about how memoir and fiction differ these days and why even novelists (Kathryn Stockett and Bo Caldwell) seem to be drawn to memoir using a variation of a play-within-a play. What are your own thoughts about if and why  this is happening in contemporary literature?

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