Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Freedom: The Reading Habits of Fictional Characters

Richard was wearing a black T-shirt and reading a paperback novel with a big V on the cover.


She ate stale doughnuts and turned some pages of Hemingway until it was eleven and even she could see that the math wasn't going to work.


She sat in Dorothy's favorite armchair, reading War and Peace at Walter's long-standing recommendation, while the men played chess.


She took War and Peace out to the grassy knoll, with the vague ancient motive of impressing Richard with her literacy, but she was mired in a military section and kept reading the same page over and over.


For sheer respite from herself, she picked up War and Peace and read for a long time.

The autobiographer wonders if things might have gone differently if she hadn't reached the very pages in which Natasha Rostov, who was obviously meant for the goofy and good Pierre, falls in love with his great cool friend Prince Andrei. Patty had not seen this coming. Pierre's loss unfolded, as she read it, like a catastrophe in slow motion. Things probably would not have gone any differently, but the effect those pages had on her, their pertinence, was almost psychedelic. She read past midnight, absorbed now even by the military stuff, and was relieved to see, when she turned the lamp off, that the twilight finally was gone.


"This is D.H. Lawrence," Richard said impatiently.

"Yet another author I need to read."

"Or not."


She cleaned the house, read half of a Joseph Conrad novel Walter had recommended, and didn't buy any more wine.


He sat down at his ancient enamel-top table to distract himself from the taste of his dinner by reading Thomas Bernhard, his new favorite writer.


Upstairs, in his corner room, he found Jonathan reading John Stuart Mill and watching the ninth inning of a World Series game.


"I'm sorry, this book? This book is ungodly boring."

He took cover behind a chair. "What's it about?"

"I thought it was about slavery. Now I'm not even sure what it's about." She showed him two facing pages of dense prose. "The really funny thing? This is the second time I'm reading it. It's on like half the syllabuses at Duke. Syllabi. And I still can't figure out what the actual story is. You know, what actually happens to the characters."

"I read Song of Solomon for school last year, " Joey said. "I thought it was pretty amazing. It's like the best novel I ever read."


He took out the novel his own sister had given him for Christmas, Atonement, and struggled to interest himself in its descriptions of rooms and plantings, but his mind was on the text that Jonathan had sent him that afternoon: hope it's fun looking at a horse's ass all day.


The English couple grabbed the next two seats, and Joey found himself sitting toward the rear with the mother and her daughter, who was reading a young-adult horse novel.


He got his best friend, Mary Siltala, to drive him down to the lake house with a duffel bag of clothes, ten gallons of house paint, his old one-speed bike, a secondhand paperback copy of Walden, the Super-8 movie camera that he'd borrowed from the high-school AV Department, and eight yellow boxes of Super-8 film.

--Jonathan Franzen, Freedom


Jeanne said...

I particularly liked the way knowing the mother and daughter were reading a YA horse novel described them enough to dismiss, the way you do when you quickly sum up the character of someone riding in a semi-public conveyance.

SFP said...

Yep. Of course, that's only because Jane Smiley hadn't yet started publishing her YA horse series. Last year I read quite a rant about her on a conservative-leaning blog--how dare she attempt to get the kiddies at an impressionable age!

Wonder which Conrad novel. . .

frisbeebookjournal said...

I'm finally starting to believe I should read Freedom. I loved The Corrections, but the constant lauding by critics before it was published put me off.

Great quote!