The Fight for “Freedom”

Franzen appears tonight at the Lisner Auditorium

With Freedom, Jonathan Franzen has written, in the best sense of the word, a must-read novel: which is to say he has published a must-discuss novel. This is no mean feat. The novel that tops the New York Times Book Review does not frequently cross over to the New York Times Op-Ed page. Yet David Brooks, who has never met an issue on which he could not take the nuanced, centrist position, said that Freedom "sucks you in with its shrewd observations and the ambitious breadth."

His September 20 commentary followed the New York Times Sunday Book Review item on the novel from August, written by Sam Tanenhaus. Tanenhaus was rather more ebullient, calling Freedom a "masterpiece of American fiction." From there his review spirals out in dizzying observations on fiction and ontology. "Once again Franzen has fashioned a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life," wrote Tanenhaus. In his review he answered admiration with obfuscation.

Yet he deserves credit for addressing Freedom without writing about writing about Freedom (as I will admit to doing here). Brooks, for example, wrote at length about B.R. Myers's Atlantic Monthly review of the book. Book critic Jessica Crispin has said she is against Freedom: She has pledged not to read it, on the grounds that the notion of a must-read novel obligates readers to the same conversation (one in which she is anyway participating).

"Not in Vienna, not in New York, not on the plane, not in a box with a fox whatever the [expletive], no," she wrote. "So just shut up about it."

The Washington City Paper's Moe Tkacik used the opportunity to lament the old conservative tradition, perhaps most recently expressed in the pages of The New Criterion, of condemning works of art on honest-to-goodness aesthetic grounds. That Freedom can inspire conservative critics to greater achievements than Glenn Beckian political takedowns of works of art as socialist qualifies as an accomplishment, if true.

Expect, then, as many nonreaders as readers at tonight's Politics & Prose appearance by Franzen -- an event that was moved to George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium due to overwhelming demand. If the critical response to the novel is any indication, the discussion about Freedom will be democratic, with points about the novel's function in society bearing just as much relevance as points about the novel itself.

Further, if the critical response to the novel is any indication, you should already be in line: The event is free. Doors open at 6 p.m., and Franzen's talk begins at 7 p.m.

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