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More than a month has passed since I listened to the unabridged recording of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and read the paperback of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles.  To be frank, I’ve been avoiding writing about either of these novels, not because I didn’t like them, but because I feel inadequate even discussing them.  My words, no matter how carefully chosen or artfully rendered, cannot elevate these books any further.  They are two of the finest works of literature I’ve read in years.

I’ve never actually read Franzen on the page, but I have heard his words.  I read The Corrections by way of George Guidall’s voice, twenty-two hours of it off of cassette tapes borrowed from the library; never have I been as happy to commute to work as I was in those days.  Freedom is narrated by David Ledoux, a relative newcomer to the audiobook scene.  He gives a standout performance, giving every character a distinct style and voice, infusing the narrative with humor and intelligence.  If the narrator is good enough, he or she makes the book better, and this is absolutely the case here.

The Corrections contained fancier sentences, more flourishes of Franzen’s wordly talent, but Freedom is the better book.  It is more generous, more heartfelt, and more closely examined, especially Patty’s sections.  Like The Corrections, Freedom, too, is a family story at heart, told from various points of view – Patty and Walter Berglund, their son Joey, and their friend Richard Katz.

Franzen tried to write portions of Freedom in the first person but didn’t like what he saw, so he came up with a devious narrative trick.  The largest and the most satisfying portion of the book is “Mistakes Were Made,” Patty’s autobiography that she writes at the behest of her therapist.  It’s written in the third person, but Patty often interjects like this:

In the autobiographer’s opinion, Joyce had her first baby before she was emotionally prepared for motherhood, although the autobiographer herself perhaps ought not to cast stones in this regard.

In effect, Franzen is having his cake and eating it, too, a first-and-third person hybrid that manages to be both immediate and objective.  Often I forgot I was reading Patty’s words until the “autobiographer” makes her appearance, which was always welcome.  It reminded me of the unreliability of the narration, that I was seeing things from a highly specific point of view.

Freedom has its problems, as The Corrections had its problems.  The Lithuanian section of The Corrections was too long and not nearly as compelling as the family portions, and the equivalent difficulty in Freedom is the mountaintop removal sections.  I appreciate what Franzen is trying to do, to be the social novelist that he is; like Dickens before him, he desires to pursue a higher purpose for literature.  Franzen does what he can to integrate philosophy and politics into the family narrative, but I still had to fight myself from pressing the fast-forward button.  Having said that, I wouldn’t change a thing.  If I have to wade through the author’s well-intentioned diatribe about the destruction of the environment to reach the juicier parts of the novel, I’m okay with it.  I will finish off my Brussels sprouts before eating my apple pie.

I don’t think perfection is possible in a novel with as large a canvas as Freedom.  To paraphrase the idiot king in Amadeus, there are too many words.  There are so many moving parts to the Berglund saga that it’s remarkable Franzen can keep the machine running as smoothly as he does.  Which is why Bynum’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles is what Freedom is too bulky to be: perfect.  It is as simple as Freedom is complicated, a story about a twentysomething seventh-grade teacher, Beatrice Hempel, told from an assured, invisible third person voice.  Comprised of eight chapters and 193 pages, some may designate Ms. Hempel as a short story collection since all but two of the chapters were published as standalone works in literary journals, but I’d disagree with that categorization.  I’ve read novels that had less of a novelistic structure than Ms. Hempel (Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica comes to mind), and there’s no doubt that read as a single unit, the sum of the parts far exceed the whole.

The strength of this book comes from its utter ordinariness, that Bynum mines such emotions and depth from every life.  Ms. Hempel goes through some major life events in these pages – parental death, engagement, marriage, breakup, childbearing – but these occasions are not the focus.  Instead, the focus is Ms. Hempel’s mind, her observations, the specificity of her point of view.  My favorite part of the novel occurs in the chapter “Yurt,” where Ms. Hempel finds herself slow dancing with fellow teacher Mr. Polidori in the bathroom of a bar as a song plays on outside.  It seems like something exciting might happen, but when the song ends, Mr. Polidori diffuses the charged moment with a kiss on her forehead.  Here is Ms. Hempel’s reflection:

Later, she would return to this moment, flipping it back and forth like a tricky flash card, one that somehow refused to be memorized.  She asked herself all the boring questions (not pretty enough? odd smell? fiancé?) but couldn’t quite manage an answer.  Causality kept escaping her.  He kissed her, then he changed his mind – that was as far as she ever got.  But always fascinating to her was the fact that she could feel him changing his mind.  Feel it in her muscles and on her skin.  Not that he did anything so obvious as stiffen, and his body didn’t once let go of hers; yet something shifted: the pressure that was once excited now merely emphatic, the mouth still warm but only reassuringly so, the embrace turning into a squeeze.  His body’s gracious withdrawal of interest in the very moment that he decided, No, this really isn’t for me.

The level of detail, the rightness of detail, is what makes this book work.  This paragraph is funny, curious, and brilliant in its simplicity; there is no artifice in Bynum’s language to occlude our access to Ms. Hempel’s mind.  As the novel progresses, Bynum transforms the character Beatrice Hempel into a real, breathing person, which is the reason why I love reading in the first place: I get to know a character better than anyone I could in real life.  This is as intimate as a book can get.

As a writer, it’s gratifying to read books like these, to be acquainted with authors who use language with such precision and purpose, but I’d be lying if I failed to mention a profound sense of sadness.  Because even though we all choose from the same pool of words, folks like Franzen and Bynum can arrange them better than just about anyone, especially myself.  Freedom and Ms. Hempel remind me of an unpleasant truth, that what I want to accomplish in writing and what I believe my talents to be are so far apart that I feel I’m playing a loser’s game.

It can’t be helped.  This is what happens when you’re faced with greatness: awe and regret.

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SUNG J. WOO is a writer living in New Jersey. Some of his short stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney's, KoreAm Journal, and The New York Times. His debut novel, Everything Asian (April 2009), has been praised by the Christian Science Monitor and received a starred review from Kirkus.

One response to “Listened and Read: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (narrated by David Ledoux) and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles

  1. ken says:

    The humbleness and respect in your admiration for other writers seems to add substance to your own work. It is interesting to me that you may not realize the power and beauty in what you created in Everything Asian. It was not just a book to enjoy and treasure, it truly made my life better and forever closer to people in any culture. Your novel resolved issues from my own childhood.

    To go beyond the words, and be able to go right to the substance of people, good people that are all around us, is something beyond superb writing.

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