I was probably one of thousands (millions) of people who became aware of Jonathan Franzen’s book “Freedom” over the past 6 months, having been told repeatedly that this was the greatest novel of the 21st century. The subject matter was not of immediate interest to me, nor that of his previous book – “The Corrections” (the deconstruction of the American Family in essence) but as a devourer of fiction I could not miss out. Perhaps it was with the same sense of purpose that led me to read Howard Jacobson’s recent, award winning and allegedly best work – “The Finkler Question” although in this case it was the modern Jewish psyche which was under the microscope both from a parochial and religious viewpoint.
Now I like to be entertained and amused by literature and I entered the realm of both authors with tentative enthusiasm -I had stopped reading Howard Jacobson’s work, perhaps 20 years ago, feeling he had run out of comical steam like many others (I will not mention the name of the author of the Discworld novels for fear of offending those who I would most like to engage).
I listened to Freedom as an audio book on my iPod, either whilst running – 5k is not the best distance to consume the greatest novel of the 21st century – one needs a larger bite and it is not a book one can best enjoy at a sprinting pace – or on my way to see clients (a number of my clients are children who have allegedly suffered abuse and find themselves in the English care system ) – or then again, on my way to and from court. I experienced the family life of an American man, his wife, daughter and a musician friend. The musician was the most interesting character – I am a musician – both a writer and sometimes performer of “indie pop” and now a writer and producer of film music (or should I say music that I hope one day will be used in films) on Garageband but this character is so unremittingly unpleasant as to lose hope of my empathy early on. Everyone in this book – perhaps, one was given the impression, everyone in an American family is depressed.
Do I want to read about rich depressed American families? No I don’t, in the hands of Tom Wolfe perhaps or Martin Amis, then perhaps it would have been a different story but not Mr Franzen, for all his obvious skill. I deal with depressed families every day, it is my role to be a rock for my clients, not just another professional, a solicitor without face or form – if you do not give something of yourself to your clients then you can gain nothing from this profession which can offer so much. But I do not wish to dip the notional toe of my creative senses into that particular pool, at least as a consumer.
As for The Corrections, I gave up at page 428 deciding I did not care whether any character lived or died (never a good point to reach in a book). I consumed this particular work in book form which meant it was easier to just surrender to antipathy.
I found The Finkler Question all the more relevant but not a great deal more satisfying than Freedom. It’s subject matter was far more germane and interesting to me but yet again all of the characters with the exception of one who dies in considerable pain are depressed. I thought both authors were accurate in their dissemination of emotional disintegration and perhaps most of all the proximity of jealousy to love in close male friendships – one perhaps a little finger the other a thumb in the hand we are dealt, but I could not find the diversity of human emotion that I witness in my professional life on these pages.
Each day I see absolutes in horror, joy and shame, sometimes all on the same face, a few seconds apart. People are losing family members because of their own actions and the actions of those close to them. They are in disbelief, they are not believed, they wish they did not feel and sometimes yearn that they could. It is my role to help those that will allow them to be helped, to put an arm around their shoulder and guide them through the wasteland of the legal process towards some resolution. Some are too young to understand, some too insular and angry. But there is always a way in to help and to understand and with years of careful observation the hiding place for that key can always be found.
There is no typical family either in fiction nor in the brightly coloured world I enter after stepping off the Monday morning train in Belsize Park and I would not want to be a typical family lawyer.