At 562 pages, this is a long novel, although it doesn’t seem near that long. It follows the story of Patty and Walter Berglund, a couple living in St. Paul, Minnesota, as well as their two children and Walter’s close college friend Richard Katz. It starts with neighbors’ observations of the Berglund’s, particularly Patty, and their conflicts with their son, Joey. Then we move to Patty’s personal journal, entitled “Mistakes Were Made,” which is her third-person account, at the request of a therapist, of how she and Walter met in college, and how she ended up choosing the more down-to-earth and “nice” Walter, even though she was much more attracted to Richard, the womanizing leader of a cult punk band. She then jumps from their college years to the early 2000s, when she finally has an intense fling with Richard. The novel then moves into a series of long chapters focusing on various characters: Walter who leaves his job with 3M and moves to Washington to lead an environmental trust for wealthy Texas energy magnate; Richard who belatedly becomes famous through a collaboration with younger musicians, and then blows it all through drugs and drink, ending up back building decks as he’d done for years; Joey as he goes off to college, deals with his relationship with the girl from next-door at home (whose family he’d lived with after moving out on Walter and Patty) and his attempts to become part of wealthy society and become a business success. The backdrop to all this is the build-up to, and then the actual invasion and reconstruction of Iraq.
So what did I like about this novel? For me, it starts with story: is the story compelling enough to keep me reading for 562 pages? The answer here is “yes.” Franzen has a particular genius for “starting at the end,” foreshadowing the outcome of a particular chapter in such a way that you have to keep reading. (It reminds me of one of my favorite opening lines, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, when he faced the firing squad, Colonel Auerliano Buendia was to remember the distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” How can you not keep reading after that start?) In the hands of a lesser writer, this could seem manipulative, but here it works.
Second, Franzen has a sharp eye for the details of modern American life, particularly as it relates to the striving upper middle classes, and the “culture wars.” The scene in which Walter clashes with a local backwoodsman captures perfectly the tenor of these issues, as do Joey’s interactions with the beautiful sister of his wealthy college roommate.
He creates highly complex characters, most of which ring true to me, particularly Walter Berglund and Richard Katz. Their motivations, attitudes and psychology all added up. The only character who never 100% added up to me is Patty Berglund. She is also, interestingly, the most intriguing character in the book. Her combination of hyper competitiveness and strange passivity is absorbing. I had trouble sympathizing with some of the characters in The Corrections but had no trouble here. I also didn’t feel the “squirminess” (this is a literary term) that occurred when reading that book. Freedom is more comfortable, and even when the characters are doing unlikeable and/or stupid things, I still somehow felt for them. I was close to tears at the ending, not something I came even close to experiencing with The Corrections.
I do wonder if this book will stand the test of time just due to the number of immediately pertinent issues with which it deals. Will the frequent references to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, mountaintop removal mining, global warming, etc., still ring true in 10, 20 or 30 years?
As to whether it’s worth the hype, well, whenever I hear “Great American Novel,” I tend to check out. It’s way too early to make that judgment about anything. But at the end of the day, in spite of the hype and it’s already designated status as a Very Important Novel, it is a great story with compelling characters that is a joy to read. Pick it up soon!