I can’t call this a book review, because I didn’t actually “read” Franzen’s long-awaited fourth novel–I listened to it on CD, 19 CDs to be precise. And in the way that some reviews (especially of poetry books) often touch on production values, it’s going to be hard for me to separate my enjoyment of Franzen’s fiction from a commentary on the delivery method. But hey, Freedom has had plenty of unadulterated press already, the main message of which seems to be: read it! And I’m not going against that. It’s an excellent, possibly unmissable novel.
This was not my first flirtation with Books on CD. Back when I was doing my MFA and attempting to read five, often weighty, books a month while juggling much younger children, I listened to Pinsky’s Inferno and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking on CD in a form of desperation. But I do enjoy books–their portability and tangibility, and also the fact that if you are confused by something you can check a few pages back to see if you interpreted earlier events correctly. So, once I graduated I returned to actual reading, eventually supplementing my library with a Kindle.
My West Windsor job however, has me driving even more than usual, and driving solo. I found I was using that 90 minutes mostly in incredibly unproductive brooding over might-have-beens and recent rejections, so I decided to give Books on CD another go.
I confess I have not, in fact, read The Corrections (although I do now intend to), Franzen’s 2001 novel. Confronted by the shelves of CDs in Borders that lean heavily toward popular novels, I chose Freedom because I had just read a remarkable personal essay by Franzen in the New Yorker, and I liked his style. It seemed intellectual without being so dense that his sentences would be aurally obtuse, and that indeed proved to be the case, once I started listening.
I didn’t much like the first chapter, in which the Berglunds–the family central to the novel–are being unkindly observed from the outside by neighbors in their St. Paul suburb. But I was $40 odd to the bad, so I persevered. I’m glad I did. Once the book segued into Patty Berglund’s therapeutic memoir of her troubled, if wealthy childhood (a memoir which later itself plays a role in the plot) I was hooked.
And therein lies one issue with a novel on CD. You can’t just pick it up in odd moments–over a cup of tea, say–to continue following the absorbing narrative of this dysfunctional but likeable family’s lives. I found myself looking forward to periods when I would be driving alone, even volunteering for them, desperate for another fix of Berglund drama. Or I would arrive at my destination with only a few minutes to spare but be unable to tear myself away from the story until it reached some point of at least temporary closure.
For some reason, although the story and characters are compelling, the delivery method left me more aware than usual that I was involved with a fictional work. Perhaps this was because some part of my brain (other road users will be glad to know) was occupied with driving. Perhaps because I read way faster than anyone can enunciate a sentence, so the pace left me time to take in Franzen’s authorial devices–the framing of the book by these neighborhood episodes, the repeated use of the word freedom, the parallel of Walter Berglund’s rock star friend Richard Katz and his womanizing antics, and Walter’s obsession with protecting songbirds from feral cats. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing though.
I wonder if I would have been as viscerally affected, had I read rather than had narrated to me the most infamous scene in the book–the one where Joey Berglund has to–ahem–search for the wedding ring he swallowed a few days earlier, in a hotel room bathroom while a woman who is not his wife knocks on the door. I literally gagged and had to consciously think about not puking. It’s graphic!
But then Franzen’s prose is rich and mellifluous all through, whether he is using it to describe scenes of great beauty or to dissect contemporary American life mercilessly. I loved it, I loved all his characters (apart from, perhaps, the unfortunate Loleetha) and I didn’t want it to end. And now it has ended, well, I guess I’m just going to need to go and get another book on CD. Anyone want to swap?