When he appeared on the cover of Time magazine this August (the first novelist to be thus honoured in a decade), Jonathan Franzen was acclaimed as a “Great American Novelist" and as someone who, better than anyone else, gave Americans a sense of “the way we live now". The occasion for this coronation was the release of Franzen’s long-awaited and massive new novel Freedom, his first in the nine years since his best-selling The Corrections.

Freedom: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 582 pages, $28 (around Rs 1,240.

“F**k", incidentally, is a favourite word of Franzen’s, and he deploys it not just as an expletive and as a verb denoting casual sex, but also as shorthand for making love, as when a woman remembers how “they laughed and cried and f****d with a joy whose gravity and innocence it fairly wrecks the autobiographer to think back on". The English language has a very wide vocabulary, so perhaps the gravity and innocence of the act here required the use of a different verb to make it real. The reliance on “f**k" is emblematic of a certain coldness in the novel’s language, as if determined to reduce the entire palette of human dealings and emotions into something more monotone. The result is a book that is often not just depressing (which is fine), but depressingly written.

Early bird: Time magazine said Franzen writes six or seven days a week, starting at 7am. Joe Kohen/AFP

All these events are described to us from a peculiar point of view, that of a retrospective journal entitled Mistakes Were Made written by Patty at the insistence of her therapist, and yet describing herself in the third person. Elsewhere, the narration shifts to more conventional third-person description as it tracks the activities of Walter, Katz and (in one of the novel’s best sections) the now adult Joey, trying to balance marriage with an affair while also attempting to make a quick buck off business operations in post-war Iraq.

Franzen has an excellent ear for dialogue, and the exchanges between his characters are often uncannily naturalistic. But this is a novel that, starting from the title, is so self-consciously important that the reader often feels like resisting this grandiosity, and the long sections of narration and plot devoted to the theory of the free market, to American imperialism, and forest degradation are enormously cynical and tiresome. This is an intermittently compelling and dramatic novel that is bogged down too much by its own weight.


Too fat for its own good

Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.

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