BY SEAN CLARK
[This novel is a C4 Great Read.]
Author: Jonathan Franzen
2010, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Filed Under: Literary.
This book is the long anticipated follow-up to Franzen’s excellent (though I admit, I only read half of it…) The Corrections. Freedom got tons of hype–for about two weeks leading up to the launch, Franzen was everywhere, e.g., the cover of TIME, interviews with most major papers, etc. Then it sparked the whole feminist “Franzenfreude” fracas. Some reviews gushed, others called it overrated. I went into this book with pretty high expectations, and while it’s far from a perfect novel and not without its faults, I have no hesitation in labeling it a C4 Great Read.
I find the whole “Franzenfreude” thing beside the point (basically the New York Times giving it two good reviews sparked a whole debate about gender bias in book reviewers/publishers, something that Franzen has absolutely no influence over). Deserving of two NYT reviews or not, this book is expertly constructed, vastly deep and well-imagined, and yet accessible; it’s a long, dense book with some excellent writing, but it’s also a breezy and comfortable read. Reading Jonathan Franzen is not as laborious an undertaking as with novelists like Phillip Roth or Thomas Pynchon.
At its core, this is a novel about 21st-century America, who we are and how we got here culturally. The unifying theme of the book is certainly freedom, what it is, and how it means different things to different folks. However, Franzen handles this very subtly, never clubbing us over the head with preachiness or posturing or pretentiousness. In the end, the America he portrays is a sympathetic, if tragic (and tragically flawed) character.
The book follows the Berglund family, as well as a few characters close to the family. It’s written from many perspectives, beginning from the point of view of the Berglunds’ neighbors, then switching to an autobiography by the Patty Berglund (wife, mother, former collegiate basketball star), before cycling through the eyes (though the book always remains in the third person) of her husband Walter, their grown children Joey and Jessica, and Walter’s college roommate, Richard Katz. Freedom is one of the best examples of masterful characterization I’ve come across in the past few years; almost every character is convincingly and thoroughly rendered.
I suspect that the extent to which Franzen takes this characterization is the root of many of the complaints. On the surface it may seem overwritten or long-winded, but as the book goes on, these passages reveal themselves as necessary to the thematic whole. We see every facet of the Berglund’s lives, beginning with the high school life of Patty, then her college exploits with Walter and Richard before snaking through 40 years or so and two generations of hardships and quasi-redemptions. These relationships evolve quite organically, love and affairs come and go, personalities and friendships alter over time, some decaying, some galvanizing, most doing a little of both.
We first meet Patty as an embittered, middle-aged homemaker. Nasty to everyone, her teenage some even moves in with some neighbors to avoid her. Then we step back in time and follow her fall from happiness. Patty is quickly recognizable as an incredibly sympathetic character (her first anecdote concerns being date-raped as a teen), but she never becomes likeable. At times I found myself pitying her; at times, wanting someone to smack her. She, along with every other character in the book, is self-centered and egocentric. She carries a grudge against her husband for allowing her to give up her life for a family, and when the family outgrows her, she tries to take back a life she passed up on, in doing so scuttling the happiness of those around her with an air of entitlement. This of course is an understandable and not at all uncommon thing, but it’s hurtful and and she knows it, even relishes it:
For the prosecution: She loves Jessica an appropriate amount, but Joey she loved way too much. She knew what she was doing and she didn’t stop, because she was mad at Walter for not being what she really wanted, and because she had bad character and felt she deserved compensation for being a star and competitor who was trapped in a housewife’s life.
Walter’s selfishness shows itself in exactly the opposite manner. He was the nice guy who finished last every time but once, when he landed his dream girl and started a family with her. Walter is the consummate good guy, a timid beta male out to please everyone. Ideologically he is fiercely liberal and outspoken, but it never extends past dinner conversation until later in his life, when he quits work as a lawyer and takes the helm of a nature trust in the hopes of realizing his goal of helping to save the world (which he sees as best achievable by convincing Americans to have less babies in order to slow growth and consumption), although the trust is founded by an oil tycoon with many non-environmental interests, so even in success Walter’s ideals are compromised. In his inner selfishness for outward selflessness, Walter can’t stand up to his children or his wife, instead allowing his family to crumble around him. Like Patty he wishes for a different life, and wallows in his discontentment. By refusing to make change for the better, he is just as culpable as his wife.
Then there’s Richard Katz, who is perhaps the most interesting character in Freedom. His age ranges from 17 to 50-something in this book, but he is a perpetual adolescent. A B-list rockstar and Don Juan often living states away from the Berglunds, Richard plays a crucial roll in Patty and Walter’s suburban existence. This role also makes up the spine of the novel. Basically the triangle of these three friends works out like this: Walter loves Patty, Patty loves Richard, and Richard loves Walter (not in a sexual way), but life panned out the opposite with Patty choosing Walter, Walter missing Richard, and Richard wanting Patty, or at least what she represents to him. And yet they are all “struggling, albeit in very different ways, to be good people.”
All that and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the plot. But I’m going to have to leave it at that. It is a deep book and an engaging one. And Franzen turns a hell of a phrase and writes efficient and potent capsule descriptions:
She smelled like cigarettes, and she had a heartrending way of eating her slice of chocolate-mousse cake, parceling out each small bite for intensive savoring, as if it were the best thing that was going to happen to her that day.
But what really won me over in the end is the subtlety and pervasiveness of the theme of freedom. I could write a whole essay about just that, but I refuse, because that kind of deconstruction sucks all the life out of an enjoyable novel. And Freedom has a lot of life in it. Freedom (the stilted, self-interested American definition of the word constantly evoked by Republicans) means a lot of things to a lot of people in this book, but Walter perhaps sums it up best: “…the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.”
Similar Reads: Middlesex (Eugenides), The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Diaz), The Corrections (Franzen)