Also: this post will contain MASSIVE HUGE SPOILERS so anyone who has not yet read the book should run for the hills at this point. If you’re looking for a review in order to decide if the book’s worth reading, here it is: yes, it is. Come back later.
(Pause while people run away).
So, with that out of the way: I like novels. Very much. Obviously what makes a “great” novel, or even a good one, is up for a debate as long as any individual’s academic funding might last, but personally I’m looking for three things from a proper, chunky novel – for want of any more useful terms I’ll call them a who, a what, and a why – and I want these spliced together so that it delivers one without me noticing because I’m so engrossed in the other two. Let me explain.
The who part is simplest: I want characters that are believable and who, after a while, I actually care about. Although oriented around Walter and Patty Berglund Freedom dredges in a whole raft of characters, many used as lengthy but elaborate backstory setups – think Eliza – but for the best part even the more indicental characters are well enough written as to stand out: I can, for example, still picture the scene in which Eliza accosts Patty after the basketball game, even though it’s some way removed from the plot of the latter half of the book. The characters, or most of them at least, work.
“Most” because there is, I think, one exception to this. Although Jessica disappears for large swathes of the plot (the Guardian’s brilliant digested read notes that she is “allowed back” later on), she remained to me human and credible. Joey’s friend/girlfriend/wife Connie, however, does not. She too spends page upon page absent, effectively ditched by Joey as he investigates various strategies to make his character dislikable, but never really emerges as a whole person: although the final chapters are kinder to her, she’s only ever really upgraded from a talking sex doll to an object of distant likeability. Like most other characters her ending is happier than one might have expected, but only just.
As in the loud exclamation one might make on a train when the author sidles around a subject, starts listing hypotheticals that will set alarm bells ringing in the ear of anyone who knows their narrative tactics and then, finally, smashes them around the back of the head with the blunt facts of a car accident that will bring to an end one of the more pleasant spells in the plot. So, yes, we’ve got the emotional response requirement covered. I would have rather not read that particular section on a train in the early morning, thanks, but it works.
Of course, writing off a character is one of the easier ways to get an emotional rise, but Freedom does engage successfully in some more subtle emotional tugging, though. Walter, Patty and even Richard, although each quite dislikable in their own way at various points, are written well enough that I was emotionally invested enough to want them to exit the wreckage of the plane-crash that was their adult lives in some kind of shape. And the final paragraph of the book works.
But if creating a convincing plot and characters in which one can invest emotionally makes for a good novel, doing so while also investigating a wider concept makes a great one. Freedom picks up on and plays with a number of wider themes – overpopulation, environmentalism and big business (see also Strong Motion, on that one), that bloody Warbler bird – all of which add an extra layer of interest to the story, even if they’re not all subtle additions.
And then there’s the Freedom issue. In an excellent review for the LRB James Lever identifies the Iraq War and enviroment issues as expressions of a central concern with the concept of freedom, but I’m not entirely sure those are the most important – instead the novel seems to me to focus, above all, on the relationship between abstract ideals such as Freedom, capital F, and how we act to live up to them.
It’s the relationship between ideals and actions, the abstract and the day-to-day. This binds everything of worth in the novel: Walter’s belief in limiting population and his own three kids, the love between Patty and Walter and the godawful shit they do to one another thoughout their marriage, the Noble Lie and the pile of rusted Polish truck parts in a shipping container and the mountain-blasting warbler habitat mayhem and the cat trap in the back yard.
And while the Warbler grates as a plot device and the Iraq war subplot intrudes (as does, to me, the appearance of Wilco and the other bands that pop into the narrative) this theme never rises into view beyond a vague nagging in the back of the brain, gnawing away through the final chapters and lingering in the mind after the last page.
And that, I think, counts as success.