So a few weeks ago, I read Freedom—the first Franzen fiction I've ever read, I confess. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. And I liked it. It's compulsively readable, swiftly paced, ambitious, it's quite funny, it's character-driven. Plus, as a fourth-generation northern Minnesotan, I couldn't help but love the pivotal role (fictional) Nameless Lake up by (real) Grand Rapids played in the book.
I'm fascinated about why the guy is a magnet for repressed writer rage, because I too have long felt a kneejerk irritation at the sight of his contented smirk and writerly spectacles. (Recently snatched right from his face and held for ransom!) Per the more recent woman-writer outrage so prominently acted out on Twitter, he ends up standing in for all lauded straight white bourgeois male writers; I guess someone's got to fill the late Updike's loved-and-loathed shoes. Meghan O'Rourke wrote a good piece on Slate about how the whole tempest stirs up deeper questions about unconscious bias not only in reading but in writing.
But I also have to say, for such a gifted creator of characters and the interplay between them, ultimately there's something off-putting about the women in Freedom. Patty Berglund is, I'll grant, a pretty great character, full-fledged and complex and full of drive and yearning. But the other ones?
• Lalitha is the delicately-accented brown beauty who is defined mostly by her twin passions for a) Walter and b) Walter's cause. Walter actually reflects in one moment in the car that one of the most satisfying outcomes of women's liberation was that Lalitha could accelerate the car with confidence.
• Neighbor Carol is a working-class woman whose youthful sluttery with a man in power has landed her a lifetime supply of hush money that only enables her bad manners and bad taste in men, housing, and aesthetics.
• Jenna is a mumbling sexpot who seems destined only for a Real Housewives franchise twenty years down the road.
• Connie is a total cipher. I have never read a more passive character in my life, which is I suppose partly the point, but when the character's one act of transgression is to halfheartedly let her manager sleep with her a few times... come on. And how I wish I could unread the line about the "clitoris of Connie's intelligence."
• The daughter Jessica is the exception—smart, together, capable, self-sufficient. She is utterly, almost comically, ignored. For the entire novel.
It's not like the main men in the story—Walter, Richard, and Joey—are angels. But they're so interesting. They get things done. They're complex. They're captivating, even when they're doing things you grit your teeth at. Even when Richard is lamenting "the yawning microcosm of Patty's cunt," another line I wish I could delete from my memory.
Ultimately, I think Freedom is really a love story between Walter and Richard. The women are mostly there to get in the way of it--productively for the story if not for the women.