black swan green (david mitchell)*
CHALLENGER: freedom (jonathan franzen)

if you're wavering between a hot date with jonathan franzen's new joint and some other noble pursuit - walking across the williamsburg bridge for a quesadilla at taco chulo,** for example, or joining the GRAVITY'S RAINBeh pynchon reading group i keep talking up without formally establishing - let me save you a bit of time by saying that freedom itself isn't nearly as exciting as the drama that has surrounded it. i mean, obama got an early copy and kicked off a publishing panic! franzen made the internet barf all over the place! he could be time's person of the year! he was all snubbed for a national book award, but he and oprah kissed and made up! it's hard to live up to shenanigans like that when you're a book, even if your dust jacket looks like twin peaks' opening credits.

freedom entered my life at the jetblue terminal about an hour before i got on a plane to california; i'd been more immediately interested in buying the hunger games, but the airport was fresh out of suzanne collins.*** it's low-impact plane reading, particularly for new yorker subscribers, as the first chapter was excerpted there last summer.**** (if you want to give freedom a try before plunking down $30 or getting in a year-long queue at your local library, that's a serviceable test drive.) in short: walter and patty berglund are an earnest young couple in ramsey hill, a developing minnesota neighborhood, who annoy their fellow gentrifiers by seeming inoffensive and happy, until they don't. patty has no contact with her family back in new york; what's that about? patty and walter's teenage son, joey, moves in with the horrible, conservative neighbors; again, the community eyebrows waggle. patty brings us up to speed in the next portion of the book, a memoir ("mistakes were made") she has penned at her therapist's suggestion. we get a more substantive look at how patty became a brittle hausfrau, but there's no net gain here: while franzen tells a convincing story of a somewhat aimless jock who goes to college with interesting people, falls for a rake and marries his best friend, and develops a personality a few decades too late, we're supposed to be hearing it in patty's voice, and...we don't. i'd love to believe that the university of minnesota is turning out accidental wordsmiths (patty's never identified, by herself or anyone else, as a distinguished writer), but the truth is p-bergz sounds just like j-franz. franzen is widely (and rightly) applauded for his hypermeticulous, old-dutch-master-laying-down-twelve-layers-of-paint approach to building characters; why can't he cough up a plausible narrative tone for his number one girl? his number two girl - walter's lovely indian assistant, lalitha - is also problematic; she works as an old-fashioned foil for patty (she's foreign, nubile, committed to philanthropy, hopelessly in love with walter, and completely uninterested in having children), but she actually is rather two-dimensional and shiny; while understanding her effect on walter is more important than believing in her as a character, the latter is still important.

then there's young joey. i toyed with abandoning the book when he became its focus for a time. his scenes with his long-suffering girlfriend give franzen a distinct shot at replacing john updike as the laureate of bad sex; his ridiculous career as a boy subcontractor to the u.s. military in iraq (michiko kakutani applauded his "david foster wallace-esque ability to capture the absurdities of contemporary life;" no, no!) nearly derails the novel's a-plot, and the scene (also kakutani-approved!) in which he retrieves his wedding ring from his own stool...look. many parts of freedom are very, very good; some sentences are in fact "so well-written you want to pluck them out, stab them with little corn holders, and eat them," as sam anderson put it. others make me feel as franzen, an avid birder, must have felt when his hosts in cyprus confronted him with a plate of ambelopoulia. (he had two.)

VICTOR: mitchell. franzen has a masterpiece in him, but i'm not convinced that this is that. see also: franzen ate songbirds.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 freedom-readers, should franzen have been nominated for a national book award? would you want to see his mug on the cover of time?

02 how would you feel about an oprah's book club sticker on the front of your novel?

03 how is the hunger games, anyway?

04 what would your baleen filter?

05 would you eat a songbird? what if it was served to you by a gracious host in a foreign country?

06 if you've read both the corrections and freedom, which did you prefer?

*previous battle here.

**you won't be sorry - they make the greatest quesadilla of all time.

***that's as it should be; one should buy hardcovers at full price every now and again instead of impulse-buying young adult novels and/or filtering abandoned advance reader copies from the office like a baleen whale.

****a second excerpt ran this may.


Amanda said...

01 May I say no as a non-Freedom-reader? No.
02 Aesthetically frustrated.
03 Great for reading all in one go under the covers; I found the subsequent books lacking.
04 Ginger cookies and mouthful words.
05 Only Ortolan, and only in France with a napkin over my head so the gods couldn't see.
06 Pfa.

Katherine Cortes said...

2) a) so delighted I wrote a novel! b) exuberantly anticipatory of my small fortune!
4) quesadillas. no, burritos.
5) fo shizzle. although I suspect they would be overly bony, the pickling would probably make them less prone to dryness than, say, roast squab.

Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

01: Feculent ring-salvaging and no National Book Award?  (The movies have trumped F already, anyway; Mystery Team had a terrific toilet-ring-retrieval recently, and who has the audacity to challenge the citadel that is the suppository scene in Trainspotting.)
02: She’s promoting my novel?  Have you read my novel?  It’s atrocious.
04: Gonna go with krill; krill and Frank’s Red Hot.
0?: Ha: I saw the specter of Updike suspended above your description of Franzen’s women before you said it out loud.  Nice to see a few banana peels tossed in Kakutani’s path, too.  Who’s the ‘Champ now?   

furiousmuse said...

where is question number 7? the one about the reading group? i still want in on that. december perhaps?

anonymous said...

01 don't know since i haven't read freedom, but congrats to the winner, whose small press publisher only had an initial run of 2000 copies. smallest initial print run ever for a NBA winner?

02 extremely happy, though i'm sure the press would be tiring.

04 fresh oysters (yes, i live in iowa).

05 no, and this was a real moral slip-up for franzen in an otherwise decent and earnest journalistic exercise.

also, are you sure that was praise from kakutani? given she didn't really like DFW's work in the first place, it's an open question. also, is there a more predictable book reviewer around than kakutani (realism good, anything experimental bad/showing off/overwritten)? though at least she's not as uptight as james wood.

kidchamp said...

MDF, having just finished rabbit is rich and taken a bite or two of rabbit at rest - nearing the end of the tetralogy, that is - i'm starting to feel an adversarial sort of affection for updike. it tingles.

sara, we'll see. i'm not at all sure that i want to share the holidays with thomas pynchon.

Guest/jacob, in the context of that review it was certainly praise. i am of course more predictable than MK is, though calling THUNDERTOME a series of reviews is deeply sketchy at best. camille paglia? i'm pretty sure she's a bot.

el pulpo paul said...

Is the "a" in "a-plot" an ordinal letter or a negation?

kidchamp said...

heh. ordinal, sort of. 

megan said...

Ok, finally finished. 
1) I DK. Probably not.
2) I'm with Katherine on this one. Though really, read his essay in How to Be Alone about the whole Oprah book club experience- it's rather convincing.  
5) No way. I was surprised by his situational ethics there. 
6) The Corrections, no question. I really really loved (love? it's been a while) that book. Lalitha is absolutely the weak link in Freedom, which has some enjoyable moments.  My reaction to the exoticized (ooh, she's Indian) young woman who literally begs doughy old Walter to let her give him a blow job was to look around the room to see if anyone else wanted to deconstruct the novel with me, sophomore year English class style. Also, the poo-digging scene? I love me a good poop joke, but that was just puerile - not shocking or thought-provoking. 

Reine Marie said...

I consider The Hunger Games trilogy to be a great accomplishment for Collins and a true classic for both teen and adult readers of both sexes. I'm very pleased to give it a permanent place on my-favorite-books-of-all-time shelf where, coincidentally, it will sit right alongside The Underland Chronicles.

Very, very highly recommended.