The Red Pen of Doom destroys FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen


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)

Time Magazine - Jonathan Franzen - Great American Novelist

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 butterfly, 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. 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.

23 thoughts on “The Red Pen of Doom destroys FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

  1. Well! Thank you Guy. You have restored my faith in humanity. Until now I thought I was the only one on the planet to think that Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ was boring. I gave up reading it halfway through, frustrated by the style and the snail’s pace delivery. And I am a birdwatcher (like Walter, and like JF himself, I believe)!


  2. I just finished The Corrections and I felt like I was in an episode of the Twilight Zone for writers. He needs an editor. In addition, he needs an editor. In conclusion, he needs an editor.

    P.S. He needs an editor.


  3. I’m so pleased that it wasn’t just me who had trouble with the first page. (I assumed I wasn’t smart enough to comprehend it properly.) Franzen has some beautiful passages in there, and some turns of phrase I loved, but other parts of Freedom made me claw my brain out. However, his talent can’t be denied. Even if he wields it for evil, sometimes.


    1. It’s really too bad. He truly should’ve written about the bikers — THAT would have been interesting.

      Also: Australian writers rock.


  4. I was of the same opinion of his dreary characters until I read his N. Yorker story about David Foster Wallace & his take on David’s madness. He has a heart in there but it’s damned hard to find in the dregs of suburbia.


    1. Do not understand why so many literary novelists are jumping into suburbia, as if it’s some kind of unexplored continent.

      Every sitcom for the last 30 years made fun of suburbia. DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT.


  5. I guess I’ll be the voice of dissent. I read the book, and liked it very, very much. While it isn’t one of my all-time favorites, I did find it inexplicably addicting, considering what a quiet plot and generally unlikeable characters it has.

    Perhaps after reading as much romance and urban fantasy as I had in the previous year, I enjoyed a bit of bleakness, completely lacking in magic and happy endings. (But limited to privileged problems, without any *actual* horrors. I was also still recovering from A Fine Balance…)

    His style is long-winded, but he uses distinct voices in the various sections – old-fashioned omniscient in the beginning, a woman writing about herself in third peson, and third-person close POV for the other characters. While the prose could have been much tighter, I did enjoy the book.

    I read it with a book club, and we were sharply divided. Half liked, half hated, no one in the middle.


  6. I have never cared less about finishing a book after reading the first page. Except maybe for Franzen’s other books. Oh, and The Spork. Is it not sad that even most of the self-published garbage in the world interests me more than these “great” writers of writerly writerdom? Yes (it is, in fact, “sad”).

    The only thing that could have made this first page better was if it had never been written. Or if were to be used as fodder for the fires of the Apocalypso. Y’know, the coming zombie nightmare carefully orchestrated to steel drums and catered by Dos Machos.


  7. I’m saddened that he didn’t include some morose and deeply symbolic object on the first page – a hairbrush or a mirror or Uncle Harvey’s stuffed boar’s head. Aside from that, I think you nailed the literary pretension of the thing. I love words. I love stringing them together to entertain people. And, really, I have to admit that sometimes you need a good tragedy – catharsis and all that. But. tragedy requires I care about the characters, and you are dead on right – I could care less about Walter and Patsy – but not much less.


  8. I’ve never read a Franzen book. Now I probably never will.

    Well marked and critiqued, Red Pen of Doom.


    1. Larry of the Palouse!

      I have missed your snarky words and apocalyptic advice. Bomb shelters are back in style. We should sell time shares to a secret bunker in the middle of a wheat field.


  9. I love this post almost as much as I hate the Frantzen first page. With everyone going on about the damned thing, I went to the bookstore and looked at it. I read that first page and went “WTF? There are not enough hours in the day.” Went home with a thriller and a romance novel.


    1. Laura the Curtis,

      Glad to know that I’m not alone in despising his snobby snobbery and long-winded writing. I appreciate quality and writing that moves and challenges me. This stuff doesn’t do it. It is a Double-Decker Sandwich of Blah.



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