Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
I'm also impressed by the size of this book. The silverfish literally quake in fear when they see me approaching with this magnificent tome. So many contemporary authors get away publishing these weenie little books, no thicker than a Vienna cocktail sausage, but Franzen really knows how to pile up the word count and stack the pages in the process and I can always count on him to produce a silverfish crushing piece of work that in a pinch could also squish mice, flies, even hairless mole rats if need be. Indeed, it would be a huge disappointment if an author of Franzen's stature and caliber was not up to the task of creating such wonderful vermin exterminating books. But hats off to Franzen for here's an author who never lets his Franzen-ites down and when I'm down on my hands and knees on the bathroom's linoleum tiling, whacking the bejesus out of silverfish armies, I'm always, silently, thanking Franzen for his profundity and prolific output. And if you can get your hands on a large print edition of this book you're pretty much an angel of death as far as silverfish are concerned and they should be concerned when they see you coming waving Freedom in your hand because freedom is just another word for death to all those many-legged vermin who would enslave us with their antennae-waving ways and their uncanny ability to subsist on disgusting skin flakes for days, months, even years on end, which, in my case, due to extreme psoriasis, means an endless free lunch for all those parasites and their friends that they have no hesitation about calling up and inviting over for an all-you-can-eat buffet off my body while I'm happily snoring away. Like the scourge of communism, these creatures threaten our very free-wheeling, fun-loving existence not to mention our many styles of underpants and hoisery options, and I, for one, won't settle for this and if such transgressions were allowed to continue, I would surely roll over in my grave, once I die or course and have a grave to roll over in but in the meantime I will roll over any other person's grave in the cemetery so if you're paying your respects to a dearly departed loved one and see a man rolling about on a grave plot, have no fear for it's just me doing my small part to stop the insidious influx of insects and their communist societies.
Now, as Dickens had reached his pinnacle with Oliver Twist, Melville with Moby Dick and Mickey Spillane with My Gun Is Quick, you could say that Freedom is the culmination of all of Franzen's finest thoughts and ideas, all congealed like cold oatmeal in a breakfast nook whose smog-smudged windows overlook a gas station where Mr. Renaldo Gillespie will die of a heart attack while pumping gas and passing gas simultaneously because, as some of you may not know, one of the side effects of a heart attack is farting uncontrollably, a sure sign to any innocent bystander that a heart attack is occurring and a tragic event might very well end in death.
Still, with a plot that begins with all the bang of a sick budgie vomiting undigested birdseed on to the newspaper flooring of its cage before falling off its perch and landing on its cuttle-fish sharpened beak, lulling the reader into a sense of banal domestic intrigue, Franzen quickly revs it up, going from 0 to 60 with a double cam and re-blocked V8 and though it's no Maserati this is America and freedom we're talking about, not some whiny European import whose exhaust smells of foie gras, mortadella, burnt berets, one-eyed chicken hoarding gypsies, stolen Greek friezes, rickets, sweaty cricket pants, the Industrial Revolution, Charles Dickens' jockstrap, bad shrimp and old women with mustaches and hairy moles where other people have facial features and/or limbs attached to shopping bags.
Basically, this book is the story of Gubba and Teddy Fenoodee, their teenage son, Ranch, and their twenty-something daughter, Serafina-Bitskin. Add to the picture Teddy's old high school buddy, the tormented conceptual artist, Seymour Parfo, recently moved back to the city after success and then failure in the dog-eat-dog-that-drinks-out-of-the-toilet-bowl world of international art and you have a recipe for disaster, renewal, restraining orders and jello molds complete with luncheon meat and tears of bitterness imbedded deep in their quivering centers. Teddy has never strayed far from his roots, marrying his college sweetheart and making a life for himself and his family in his hometown of Mount Olive, North Carolina, pickle capital of the U.S.A. Working as a chief quality control expert at the local pickle factory, Teddy is a socially and environmentally conscious individual who cares both about Mother Earth and the pickles she provides so selflessly so that others may enjoy the fruits of her loins, labours and the headiness of her brine. Not to beat a metaphor like a dead horse that lost the Kentucky Derby, but the combination of the pickles and Mother Nature's insinuated vagina (which has always been rumored to lie just outside of Mount Olive beneath the overpass leading on to the Interstate I-40) are an obvious subtext to the fecundity of the community and the many suburban couplings that undermine the moral efforts of the residents and their strict adherence to adhesive products and the binding family ties these products suggest. Let me just say duct tape is used both for the purposes of good and evil, pleasure and pain, do-it-yourself plumbing and upholstery repair and a random kidnapping, all occurring in the same rec-room no less, sometimes by people with no pants on and I'll leave it at that so as to not give too much of the plot away and keep your anticipation building for page 193 of the book, which isn't even the halfway point but after you finish this passage you'll be sweating like the proverbial pig and wishing the whole thing were over with already, especially if you're like me and allergic to your own sweat causing you to break out in a nasty rash so repulsive not even your aging landlady (who herself has underarm fat so prodigious it hangs like the wattles of a thousand chickens or the mudflaps on a Kenworth semi-trailer and trails sweat like oil slicks on a heavily-traveled rain-soaked highway), will rub lotion on it.
The real hinge point of this plot line, where the story suddenly swings in an unexpected direction, is when one day, inexplicably, Teddy Fenoodi wakes up at his usual 6am, bright and crisp as an Ice Capades performer on metamphetamine, but instead of his sensible breakfast he wolfs down his daughter, Serafina-Bitskin's Sugar Krinkles cereal that she keeps hidden in her underwear drawer (the Fenoodees run a healthy household and all sugary junk foods are thus banned from the pantry). His wife, Gubba, is so astounded and then alarmed that she checks his forehead for a fever and implores him to stay at home in bed. She wants to leech him but Teddy puts her mind at rest, then at ease, and then into a semi-comatose state through the infusion of massive amounts of cold medicine in Gubba's morning tea. He then goes to the leech cabinet and amply helps himself to handfuls of leeches that he applies to Gubba's body in the hopes that the combination of cold medication and slow and gentle bloodletting will keep Gubba immobilized for a few hours. As Gubba settles into a gentle slumber in Teddy's La-Z-Boy recliner, Teddy drives to the pickle factory, marches right past his pickle quality control station, bowls his way past pickle company president Mr. Chornbluth's secretary, Leonarda, looks straight into the upraised unibrow of Mr. Chornbluth himself who's on speaker phone with a phone-sex operator that specializes in wet noodle whipping fetishes and quits his job with nary an explanation or even a curt goodbye. "What's the meaning of this?" Chornbluth exclaims, even while, loud and clear over the speakerphone, the phone-sex operator is screaming, "Yes, yes, whip me with your wet fat noodle you great big pickle king, don't stop until the brine runs down my legs," but Teddy Fenoodee barely registers these sentiments as Chornbluth tries to hide his erection beneath his desk blotter (a father's day present no less from his ungrateful children who fashioned the blotter from the remnants of clothing left under bridges by homeless people as part of their art therapy detox project). Shame colours his face but not enough to make him forget the immense amounts of money he has socked away in offshore accounts or where he murdered and buried his last wife in the Grand Caymans under an underused coconut tree. All part and parcel of the Franzen grand scheme of things. Fact is, and as Franzen leads us to believe, if you're rich enough and decide to wet your pants in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria or The Ritz Carleton, soon everyone will follow suit, wetting their pants too and there'll be a whole new clothing line introduced by swanky designers celebrating public pants-wetting and all its nuances, whether it be in a hotel foyer or a crowded subway car. But I digress with this whole pants-wetting treatise as Franzen sets his sights on much higher themes in which public urination plays only a small part in the sweeping weltschmerz of a specific time in American history, the ennui of suburban enclaves and a nation in conflict with its own past glory.
With Teddy Fenoodee apparently unemployed, his wife, Gubba, in a distraught state of mind, takes up with an old high-school friend who made it big on the international art scene but has returned, mysteriously, to Mount Olive, where he's working at Zarathustra's Car Wash & Schmaltz Herring Factory. It is none other than Seymour Parfo, known for his controversial video piece, Chicken Bum Licking Man in which he licked the bum of a chicken that was dressed in a tiny Gestapo uniform over a twenty-four hour period, taking breaks only for visits to the bathroom and to replenish his body with nourishing bonito flakes and head cheese wrapped in light, fluffy pastry. On the strength of this video piece alone, Parfo garnered rave reviews and accolades from even the sternest, stuffiest and staph-infected of art critics worldwide and he was soon the darling of billionaire jet-setters and influential galley curators, getting him the best seats in restaurants, airplanes and first dibs at the dizzying array of supermodel lips, both facial and vaginal, sometimes both in one evening. The money and fame also allowed him to acquire the world's most comprehensive collection of antique milking machines, which he kept in a deserted airplane hangar on the outskirts of Berlin where, it was rumored, certain members of the Luftwaffe had taken extensive Watusi lessons in the event that Germany secretly landed on American soil during the war and needed to blend in before the final takeover when Hitler would call them into action using a special dog whistle invented for his beloved two-headed hermaphrodite Doberman, Plitzy, and that could be heard all the way from the fields of Tipperary to the shores of New Jersey.
Are you still with me, because I'm not. I'm queasy, I'm dizzy, I think my landlady poisoned my tea with wolf bane or else it's just some bad liverwurst with an attractive green fuzz that I found in the back of the fridge. Nevertheless, damn it, I'm going to finish this review because what's a little pain, abdominal cramping and projectile vomiting when Franzen is at stake. So, the stage is set. Parfo's back in town, dallying around with Gubba and meanwhile Teddy, unbeknownst to his wife, family, friends and neighbours, has been engaged by the U.S. military, working on a top secret project that involves disguising guided missiles as pickles to fool the enemy. Teddy's vast knowledge of pickle bodies, be it their shapes, bumps, varying shades of green and even their distinguishing aromas, has placed him as the head of the pickle missile armament division and the fact that his pickle expertise has made him a key figure in tactical weaponry eventually goes to Teddy's head and he begins a second life of war mongering and a fascination for wearing Tilley Endurable hats, pants and safari jackets with more pockets than the Pope has rings.
Meanwhile Serafina-Bitskin begins a romance with the boy next door, Plippo Guntzverhooven, a strapping young lad who, growing up, was strapped daily by his staunch Republican parents, Filtron and Myrtle. This strict upbringing has turned Plippo into a rebellious young man and although the Fenoodees have had nothing to do with their neighbours due to opposing political beliefs, their kids carry on an illicit canoodling, like Romeo and Juliet minus the poetry, pantaloons and pus-filled wounds from drunken swordplay. But as Teddy Fenoodee finds himself more hawk than dove due to his pickle-missile project, he and Filtron discover themselves suddenly friends instead of foes, much to the puzzlement of their wives and children. As for the Fenoodee's son, Ranch, he's seemingly so placid throughout the novel it comes as no surprise on page 295 that he's actually been dead from the outset of the book. Why he died remains a mystery, as does the fact that he's left rotting in his room listening to his iPod but that's the beauty of this work. Mystery abounds and sometimes it just bounds like a gazelle escaping a lion on the African savannah, much like Franzen's words which all leap and bound with a kind of graceful fear that only animals that can both run and poop simultaneously possess and there is a beauty in this that is almost beyond words but not so beyond them that Mr. Franzen wasn't able to find a few and string them together in such a manner as to make readers drool and book club members wet their adult undergarments, especially with the arrival of tea, cookies and a cheese tray during the twenty minute break. Further mysteries confound. Why does Parfo give up an illustrious international art career to return home to wash cars and brine herring? Why does Ranch suddenly rise from the dead and become a senior chartered accountant in a firm that works for a major multinational corporation whose worldwide plastic fabrication plants are killing acres of geoducks with contaminated waste. Why is a manatee driving the school bus? Why does Franzen hint that Serafina-Bitskin's boyfriend's mother was once Lee Harvey Oswald's babysitter, watching the little tyke while Oswald's mother went to various underground communist meetings and threw lavish fondue parties. As they say, the apple never falls very far from the tree unless it's a baked apple with half-baked schemes and if you've ever tried to throw a baked apple then you know what I mean. Franzen's writing is like a uranium deposit for the brain, unstable, radioactive but sure to light up your synapses like a lightning bolt hitting a golfer holding a putter and an umbrella on the 8th green and who also happens to have a metal hip replacement so that the glow from his charred body can be seen from the clubhouse bar.
What more can I say? He's a modern day Dickens crossed with Slim Pickens with just a touch of Harold Robbins thrown into the mix for a little swank factor. He brings ennui out of the Victorian era and into the contemporary American suburban landscape with a kind of character psychology that resembles topiary of the human psyche, which is nothing to sneeze at (except if you have allergies) when you consider how difficult it is to shape certain types of shrubbery. Especially if you're trying to depict a poodle or a wallaby.
In the words of my friend, Schmeltzy Gimmeldick, famous philosopher and hardwood flooring expert (you might have heard his slogan, "If Your Heels Don't Click It's Not A Floor By Gimmeldick), "What is freedom? Freedom alas, freedom avast, freedom ahoy, freedom oh boy, freedom al fredo, al fresco, al dente or with tomatoes." All I can add is that if you like the taste of freedom then this is the book for you although I don't suggest you eat the thing but if you must, do it page by page, in which case you need to chop the paper up finely and put it on maybe a nice piece of rye or sourdough with hot mustard or mayonnaise. Goes down easy just the way freedom should.