The celebrity novelist Jonathan Franzen, whose ambition has long been to do the “job of social instruction,” has written a “big social novel” to settle the question of what “freedom” means in America—if not once and for all, then for at least as long as the names of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney conjure outrage and condescension. Freedom mentions the former president and vice president some 20 times, even making reference at one point to “the Bush twins and all the partying and loose morals that the Bush name connoted.” For a novelist who once took to the pages of Harper’s to express his conviction that “drawing on an up-to-the-minute vocabulary of icons and attitudes” would consign a book to “overnight obsolescence,” this might seem to be an odd strategy.
Not really. Franzen’s aspirations are monumental; as a “social novelist” who seeks to convey “vital social news,” he places himself in the company of Tolstoy. Critics have already decided that Freedom fulfills those aspirations. The Economist compared it to Paradise Lost. Time magazine put Franzen on its cover, hailing him as the long-awaited “Great American Novelist.” He gained another sort of renown when President Obama was spotted on Martha’s Vineyard in August with an advance copy of the novel.
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