By Jonathan Franzen
The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally – (add spaces here to match dash format in 2nd graf) he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now – but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill did were not so loyal to their city as not to (if we can replace 10 words with one word, those 10 words are deader than Charlie Sheen’s acting career) read The New York Times, which ran According to a long, and very unflattering story in the Times, on how Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty trouble reconciling the quotes about him in the Times (“arrogant,” “high-handed,” “ethically compromised”) with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle (maybe bicycle geeks know or care, but humans do not get into bike vs. commuter bike, and I’m entirely unclear whether Walter was a U.S. Senator or a staffer or a lobbyist, and how he made the transition from bigshot in Congress or whatever to 3M employee on a bicycle, or whether he started as a nothing at 3M on a bike and went to D.C. or is now pedaling to work after screwing up big enough to be in the Times yet not go to federal prison) up Summit Avenue in February snow;. (let’s use a period, because semi-colons at the end of endless sentences are for professors and pretentious chowderheads) It seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.
Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill – the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen fell on hard times three decades earlier. They paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for ten years renovating it. (contradicts last sentence of the first graf, since buying a beater house and working crazy hard to fix it says there’s something very right about the Berglunds) Early on, Some very determined person torched their garage and twice broke into their car before they got the garage rebuilt. Sunburned bikers descended on the vacant lot across the alley to guzzle drink Schlitz and grill knockwurst and rev engines at small hours until Patty went outside in (Drunken bikers would be afraid of some housewife? Um, no.)
(end of page 1)
Notes from the Red Pen of Doom
Yes, I know that critics went gaga over this book, and they loved THE CORRECTIONS, too.
I hate this first page. It rubs me wrong, and makes me feel like I’m about to read a 895-page doorstop of a book, something my sadistic Contemporary English Literature professor assigned me to read as punishment for my literary sins.
Here’s the deal: Franzen writes about families in the suburbs. Basically, the same topic that every sitcom has tackled for the last 50 years. Instead of making it funny, he makes it deep and depressing.
Is what Franzen writes – when he closes his eyes and composes after receiving inspiration directly from a muse that circles his head and descends, like a butterly, or a silken bat, to kiss his unshaven cheeks with the kiss of creative genius – is it fun to read? No.
Don’t care about Walter and Patty as characters. I’d rather read about that biker gang, guzzling Schlitz and grilling knockwurst while the talk smack and plan crimes that go epically wrong.
As with all literature – as Camryn Rhys or Elisa Logan would say, LIT-rah-SURE – the beginning is deep and mundane and depressing. It only gets worse from there. While the writing may be beautiful and amazing – though it is not beautiful or amazing on this first page yet – that’s not going to make me want to read more of the story. If I want to be depressed, I’d watch daytime TV.
The first page is all over the place. There are so many capitalized words and names that I have to read it twice to figure out he’s talking about Walter and Patty the entire time and not St. Paul or sunburned bikers drinking Schlitz.
Also, he adores adjectives and adverbs, while I believe, deep in my dark heart, that all those modifiers simply mean Franzen should’ve picked stronger nouns and verbs in the first place.
It pains me that Franzen is half-Swedish and spent time in Germany as a student, because I am Swedish and lived in Germany as a child. But we are nothing alike, and I care nothing for this first page.
Which is too bad. Franzen has talent to burn. I bet if he wrote about the biker gang instead, it would be seven separate flavors of awesomesauce, and the Coen brothers would make a movie out of it.
Verdict: From this first page, you’d have to hand me stacks of purple euros to convince me that reading FREEDOM would be a good use of my limited time on this planet.
Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.
Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.