Sam Tanenhaus reviews Jonathan Franzen’s new novel “Freedom’ in the NY Times Book Review

Posted by Kendall Harmon

...“The Corrections” towered out of the rubble [of 9/11], at once a monument to a world destroyed and a beacon lighting the way for a new kind of novel that might break the suffocating grip of postmodernism, whose most adept practitioners were busily creating, as James Wood objected at the time, “curiously arrested books that know a thousand different things — the recipe for the best Indonesian fish curry! the sonics of the trombone! the drug market in Detroit! the history of strip cartoons! — but do not know a single human being.”

“The Corrections” did not so much repudiate all this as surgically “correct” it. Franzen cracked open the opaque shell of postmodernism, tweezed out its tangled circuitry and inserted in its place the warm, beating heart of an authentic humanism. His fictional canvas teemed with information — about equity finance, railroad engineering, currency manipulation in Eastern Europe, the neurochemistry of clinical depression. But the data flowed through the arteries of narrative, just as it had done in the novels of Dickens and Tolstoy, Bellow and Mann. Like those giants, Franzen attended to the quiet drama of the interior life and also recorded its fraught transactions with the public world. Even as his contemporaries had diminished the place of the “single human being,” Franzen, miraculously, had enlarged it.

“Freedom” is a still richer and deeper work — less glittering on its surface but more confident in its method. This time the social history has been pushed forward, from the Clinton to the Bush years — and the generational clock has been wound forward, too. There is, again, a nuclear family, though the hopeful aspirants are not children but parents. They are the Berglunds, “young pioneers” who renovate a Victorian in Ramsey Hill, a neighborhood of decayed mansions in St. Paul (Franzen assuredly knows that F. Scott Fitzgerald grew up there, on Summit Avenue; the street is mentioned in the opening paragraph) and then float upward on drafts of unassailable virtue. Patty is a “sunny carrier of sociological pollen, an affable bee” buzzing at the back door “with a plate of cookies or a card or some lilies of the valleys in a little thrift-store vase that she told you not to bother returning”; her husband, Walter, is a lawyer of such adamant decency that his employer, 3M, has parked him in “outreach and philanthropy, a corporate cul-de-sac where niceness was an asset” and where, commuting by bicycle each day, he nurtures his commitment to the environmentalist causes he will eventually pursue with messianic, and mis begotten, fervor.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchBooks* International News & CommentaryAmerica/U.S.A.

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