BY NOW WE'RE TIRED OF THINKING about Freedom. The book blew past us in a rush, we either read it or we didn't, but whether or not we did — I read it the week it came out, entirely to clear this exhaustion — we're tired of it. The weird satisfaction (was it "vindication"?) we felt after Jonathan Franzen's novel was blanked on the Awards Circuit last month seems largely detached from the book itself, which never stood a chance. If celebrity is just the suspension of contempt (and it is), then the trail of hosannas that actually preceded the book into stores screwed it from the beginning. Many of us were tired of it before it was even for sale (some, probably, could feel the headache coming on long before it was written), which says everything about the culture of publishing and almost nothing about the book itself.
Of which, what, then? Should we file it away, content to call it overrated? Should we allow our memories to be defiled, or leap to the novel's spirited defense? Each of these prospects seems tedious in its own way, as if the sheer volume of criticism — or not "criticism," since there actually hasn't been a lot of that — as if the very avalanche of opinions, adjectives, postures, allergies, laudations, star-ratings and reviews preempted the possibility of honest response. It almost does. Almost.
Franzen's novel is ferociously ... readable. This may sound like damning with faint praise (and indeed, it might seem plain stupid to judge a book as thoroughly-prodded as this one by such a metric), but I mean it to take all praise and damnation out of the equation. Freedom reads like a bullet-train. Still. Picking it up this morning for reacquaintance, I found myself seventy pages deep before I looked up. I've already read it twice. Of course, readability isn't everything. Anatole Broyard once wrote a column in which he wondered why there wasn't a term for those books one loves but is reluctant to finish. If there's such a thing as a "page-turner," Broyard wondered, why don't we call those other books, those ones we simply can't bear to be done with, "page-stayers" or "page-impeders?" It's safe to say, with Freedom, Franzen has written the other kind of strong novel: the book's locomotive force is all but unstoppable. Both times I've read it, I've done so in less than a week.
Which raises the question of what might be missing (why doesn't the novel prompt me to slow down?), but given Franzen's own knotty history with reader response, I'd say the author might be pleased, and could consider this an unmixed compliment. In his notorious essay "Mr. Difficult," published in the New Yorker in 2002, Franzen conjures up a common reader, Mrs. M___, who was antagonized by the sophisticated language she found in The Corrections. "Who is it that you are writing for?" Mrs. M___ wonders. "It surely could not be the average person who just enjoys a good read." She goes on to call the author "a pompous snob, and a real ass-hole." This exchange with Mrs. M___ serves as a launching pad for his postulation that there exist, on the one hand, "Status" novels, which pursue aesthetic complexity at the expense of narrative comfort, and on the other what Franzen calls "Contract" books, which aim to fulfill their readers' desires. "Status" books, no matter how miraculous (the object of Franzen's essay, William Gaddis's The Recognitions, stands as the c...