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Back in February, I commented that I had felt ‘consumed by’ Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and enjoyed the experience less than reading Patrick Evan’s excellent Gifted (a pointless comparison). I used the phrase ‘Franzen’s obvious manipulation of his readers’.
Who was I kidding? I love obsessing about characters, lying awake imagining myself living their lives, replaying scenes in my head, and I don’t at all mind being manipulated by a master storyteller.
I love the enormous scope of The Corrections and of Freedom. I love the richness of Franzen’s characters. I admire his facility with structure. I love his sentences.
One of my reading friends thinks several of Freedom‘s characters are caricatures. I can’t comment because my critical faculties were switched off while I read. It doesn’t take much to flick that switch: a good enough story, an authoritative hand, compelling characters.
If I had been honest with myself back in February, I would have said that I regretted reading Freedom so fast; that I wish, when reading novels that make me voraciously curious about their characters, I didn’t fly over the paragraphs in a hectic race to find out what happens. I felt grumpy while reading Freedom: couldn’t focus on anything practical, neglecting domestic duties and writing. The grumpiness had to do with feeling out of control, and being reminded of an earlier period of my life when I only read to escape. Also, I hadn’t given myself permission to rush. In my reading plan, Freedom wasn’t a holiday distraction. I wanted to learn from it. But at the time, my desire to relieve the tension of not knowing what happened to the characters was greater.
Right now my husband is reading the final chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to our son, and on wandering downstairs to make a cup of tea, I hear details that I either missed completely or registered in some less conscious zone so as to be able to speed onwards. (My son, on the other hand, gets the business with the wands – who had which wand at what point – and is going to explain it to me over dinner.) It makes me a little sad, knowing that I didn’t savour the full resonance of every detail and missed out on some of the connections with the previous six books. But I’m addicted to pay-off. That’s why a novel like Patrick Evan’s Gifted comes as a relief. The more reflective, slower-paced tone helps me to read more gently. (Which is not to say that I had any less interest in the novel’s outcome.)
I’m thinking about this because to me the intensity of one’s reading is obviously connected to how engaged one is with the world; with each experience. And I think that to some extent, that determines the strength of one’s writing.