Yeah, just like Oprah Winfrey, I totally fell for Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Sure, the massive media hype is a turnoff, but what does that have to do with the quality of the novel itself? Freedom, it turns out, earns the praise.
I've written a review for another publication, but I also want to write about the novel on my own blog, so I thought I'd mention four other excellent novels that Freedom called to mind for me, each representing a different aspect of Franzen's big novel. If Freedom stimulated your mind (as it did mine) and left you eager for more, here are four related paths you may want to follow.
The Echo Maker by Richard Powers
The cerulean warbler in Freedom, the sandhill crane in The Echo Maker, Richard Powers' epic novel about a young man with a brain injury in Nebraska. Both books contrast the tawdry lives of humans with the idyllic innocence of nature (and both books frankly lecture their readers on ecology, and manage to toss metaphors for the Iraq War into the mix too).
Powers is a more intellectual and philosophical writer than Franzen, and he's also nowhere near as funny (in fact, I'm not sure if Richard Powers is ever funny). But neither writer is afraid to show his vast ambition, or to write with purpose and force; both The Echo Maker and Freedom are heavy bricks designed to break open your skull and get you to think harder. Oh, also The Echo Maker won the National Book Award in 2006, and Freedom is going to win it in 2010.
Eat The Document by Dana Spiotta
Similarity: CORPORATE MIND CONTROL.
Lurking behind much of the personal and family drama in Freedom is an insidious mega-corporation called LBI. Likewise, behind much of the drama in Franzen's previous novel The Corrections lurked an insidious mega-corporation called Axon. Both are updates, in a way, of George Orwell's "Big Brother". Leaner and meaner than totalitarian governmental organizations, these monstrous entities keep a light footprint, expertly manipulating public opinion to maximize profit growth, always anticipating and outfoxing attempts by rebellious humans to loosen their grip.
Dana Spiotta's Eat The Document also explores the sneaky ways our smartest (and therefore most dangerous) corporations slip their persuasive codes into the blank areas of our minds. Spiotta's slim novel about a bunch of confused young people, a Mom with a hippie past and a bookstore owner with a hippie past is more charming and more pop-culture minded than Franzen's long epic, and its Allegecom resembles Starbucks while Freedom's LBI resembles Halliburton. But it's an important point (and a point very close to the main message of Eat The Document) that Starbucks and Halliburton both trade on the same stock market.
Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin
Nobody would care very much about Freedom if it weren't a breezy, dishy pleasure to read. These pages move fast, because it's so frankly enjoyable to see the dirty secrets of a bright, complicated family splayed out like underwear on a clothesline. For all its stern proselytizing, Freedom is really a gossipy novel, packed with moments of awkward revelation, keening desire and illicit sex. And the members of the Berglund family feel so real, you expect to open up your wallet and see their smiling photo.
Laurie Colwin's Family Happiness is also a rich, deliciously guilty tale about a very quirky (and lovable, and hatable) family, about parents and children who drive each other crazy, and about the ravages of an extramarital affair. I picked Family Happiness here because it's a book I recently enjoyed, and I can easily think of other family dramas no less captivating -- This Is My Daughter by Roxana Robinson, The Little Women by Katharine Weber, The World According to Garp by John Irving (we could also go back, of course, to Henry James, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare).
A Disorder Peculiar to the Country by Ken Kalfus
For all his popularity, Jonathan Franzen is not a warm or gentle writer. The top note in both The Corrections and Freedom is bruising, bitter sarcasm. In this, he resembles another excellent fiction writer, Ken Kalfus, whose A Disorder Peculiar To The Country features a divorcing couple forced to share an expensive apartment because both of their lawyers advise them not to move away. A Disorder was one of the earliest "September 11" novels, and braved a satiric storyline: the husband and wife are both near the Towers on the day of the attack, and are then both visibly disappointed to discover that the other one has survived. Somehow, that feels to me like a Jonathan Franzen moment.
I'm not sure what it means that the novelist now acclaimed as perhaps the most emblematic voice of our time seems to be possessed by a bitter dislike of humanity (though, to be fair, Jonathan Franzen does seem to love his own pitiable characters, more in Freedom than in The Corrections). Ken Kalfus tends to deliver his sarcasm in short blasts, while Jonathan Franzen tends to retreat for long periods of time before emerging with another gigantic portion. Either way, they are both great at capturing the desperate anguish, as well as the magnetic pull, of human relationships.