by Aimee Bender
DoubledayBuy at Powell’s »
March 30, 2011
When I found out that I had to decide between Freedom by Jonathan Franzen or Room by Emma Donoghue, part of me hoped I would like Room more. I had read countless reviews and tweets and blog posts and articles about Freedom. Even Franzen’s glasses made the news last year when they were stolen during a party. His glasses. I mean, come on. I’d never read any of Frazen’s books, but wasn’t this a little bit ridiculous?
Room sounded promising because the book is told from the point of view of a child. I’m often fond of precocious children in adult books: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer and Peace Like A River by Leif Enger being two prime examples. Emma Donoghue’s five-year-old narrator Jack is a very smart boy who depends on daily routines in order to make sense of the world. His whole life has been spent in a tiny shed, where he’s locked up with his Ma. His mother was 19 when she was abducted by Old Nick, and she tries to protect her son and do the best she can for him within the constrained environment he’s brought up in. She has to explain to Jack why Old Nick won’t give them a telephone: We’re like people in a book, and he won’t let anybody else read it.
Imagination becomes one of the keys to their survival. They fashion a toy snake out of old egg hells and a labyrinth out of toilet rolls. Jack’s mother has him play Parrot, where he repeats snippets of conversation from the television to practice his vocabulary.
Tension rises in the narrative as Jack’s mother comes up with a plan for them to trick Old Nick so they can escape. And when that scene finally happens, I was brought back to clammy sweat-soaked sheets after waking up from a recurring nightmare I had as a child, where a strange man would be chasing me down the street and I went to scream but couldn’t. I was rooting for tiny, brave Jack as he pretended to be dead in a rolled up carpet on the back of Old Nick’s truck.
The second half of the novel focuses on Ma’s and Jack’s readjustment to the outside world, a world that Jack used to think existed only on TV. There’s nothing particularly bad about the way this is executed, but there’s nothing particularly stunning either. After a while, Jack’s youthful voice limited the narrative. I would have liked to see alternating chapters from his mother’s perspective. What’s it like for a woman to spend years being hidden from the world, trapped in a room with her child? I realize that the fact that this novel is told from Jack’s perspective is central to its aims, but it ultimately didn’t work for me. Room is worth a read, and a solid example of an adult and child both dealing with a very traumatic, terrifying situation. Yet I didn’t come away from Room with a renewed appreciation for the world I live in, nor did I feel particularly moved by it. Ironically, it is in its very move toward freedom that the book’s limitations were exposed.
Which brings us to the actual Freedom. For most of the time I was reading it, I felt uncomfortable and heavy-hearted. Some of the female characters in particular felt preternaturally drawn to unhappy circumstances, and I was bogged down by these miserable people making decisions that were patently bad for them.
Freedom follows the lives of Patty and Walter Berglund, a married couple who are incredibly wrong for each other and stuck in a monotonous and needy relationship. All I can say is that if this reflects the reality of most marriages, I dread it already. Reading a book about an unhappy middle-aged couple as a 27-year-old is a bit like standing on the edge of a cliff and succumbing to the irresistible urge to look down at what awaits. Let’s not even go there. Let’s just back away from the cliff and pretend it doesn’t exist. Really, though, Freedom was often remarkably stifling, like sitting in a car with all of the windows rolled up on a sweltering summer day.
At some point, I started to realize it was a testimony to Franzen’s writing that Freedom was stressing me out. Despite how uncomfortable I was, I really cared about Patty and Walter, about their flawed life, their kids, and their good friend Richard.
For most of the book, Patty wants Richard instead of her husband. Richard is Walter’s best friend from college, a perennially adolescent musician who doesn’t know how to be in an adult relationship. In a lot of ways, Patty and Richard deserve each other. That isn’t to say that Walter is perfect, but Patty in particular irritated the hell out of me. She’s constantly feeling self-pity about the inadequacy of her own life. After staying at home and raising two children, she feels like she doesn’t have much to live for; e.g., as she waits for Richard to meet her at a hotel room:
She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.
In Freedom, Franzen covers familiar groundsuburban life and its malcontentsand he writes about big themes relating to the world we currently live in: money, politics, environmentalism, and love. It’s not surprising that the book has received so much attention. In a lot of ways, Freedom fits the mold of the Great American Novel. It’s certainly more ambitious than Emma Donoghue’s Room, and covers more territory.
In Room, Ma and Jack are trapped in an 11-by-11-foot space. They gain their freedom by escaping from the shed, but how free will they ever be, even if Jack and his Ma end up eventually adjusting? In Freedom, Walter and Patty are trapped in each other’s expectations. They hurt themselves in the process, but even though they are emotionally beaten and exhausted and broken, they find comfort in each other eventually. Still, what kind of freedom is that?
So why pick Freedom? Quite simply because it is bigger in scope and more fully realized than Room turned out to be. In reading Room, one feels a connection to its singular characters and gets glimmers of a social world, but in Freedom one senses the inextricability of the social and the interpersonal, that the choices we make take place in a larger and more relevant current.
Michele Filgate is currently the Events Coordinator at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H.; she will start as Events Coordinator at McNally Jackson in New York City on April 11. She’s a writer, book critic, and freelance producer for NHPR’s Word of Mouth. Known connections to this year’s contenders: I recently produced a segment on NHPR featuring an interview with Jennifer Egan. I’m friendly with Marcy Dermansky. We had an event at RiverRun with Jonathan Franzen in September. I spoke briefly with Gary Shteyngart at a party in N.Y.C. I met Teddy Wayne at a party in Brooklyn during B.E.A.; he’s going to be on a panel I’m moderating at a literary festival in April. Skippy Dies ties with Elegies for the Brokenhearted as my absolute favorite book of the yearI’ve been tweeting about it a lot, mentioned it on NHPR and some other places, and I interviewed Murray via email for Bookslut. Also, I’ve read and reviewed The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake for The Book Studio.