I was able to get an early peek at the new Jonathan Franzen novel Freedom when President Obama loaned me his copy. Thanks, Barry. The early reviews have been rolling out for a few weeks now, and each one seems to be trying to outdo the others in the superlatives heaped upon it. So far the novel has been called “the novel of the century” and “a masterpiece of American fiction”. Franzen is “alone in his willingness to tackle America’s big issues,” insists another critic. And then the backlash started before the novel was even released. I had to stop reading if I was to ever be able to offer an opinion of my own.
I should start by noting that I was not especially a fan of The Corrections. It was heralded as a Big, Important book. It was certainly a good book, but that’s as far as I was willing to go. My problem with Franzen’s cast in that novel is that they were almost dripping with the author’s scorn. He didn’t like them at all, and they were each clearly representative of a “type” that the author seemed intent on skewering. If the author didn’t care for these people, why should the reader (me) care about what happened to them? The praise for The Corrections was near universal, and mine appeared to be the minority opinion. Fair enough.
Freedom is an enormous book, a veritable advertisement for the Kindle, and it is divided into several sections. The novel begins with an introduction to Walter and Patty Bergland, urban pioneers to a newly gentrifying neighborhood in St Paul, Minnesota. This introduction is often humorous and spot-on in its description of the travails of urban living:
…the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else’s children’s sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it.
After a mostly light-hearted introduction to the Berglunds, the next chapter is ominously titled “Mistakes were made.” This section is written by Patty at the advice of a therapist. It is written in the third person, as Patty says that she finds it easier to write about herself from a distance (and it was probably easier for Franzen, too). Despite being an “autobiography,” the chapter is fairly direct at laying bare the mistakes that Patty has made in her life. Patty doesn’t commit the only mistakes in this novel, but she is the only one who gets to provide her own account.
Walter and Patty are both trying desperately to escape their pasts, which include dysfunctional families in the Midwest and the East. True to Tolstoy’s famous quote on the matter, each of their unhappy families “is unhappy in its own way.” Despite their efforts, the dysfunction begins to creep into their quiet Midwestern home. Walter and Patty have two children, Joey and a girl. (You don’t need to know the girl’s name, because she may be the least developed character in the novel.) Joey rebels against his liberal parents by shacking up with the “white-trash” next door neighbor and becoming a committed conservative. (It reads like a horror novel at stretches for parents everywhere.)
For volatility, Franzen adds Walter and Patty’s friend Richard Katz, the iconic indie rock star, to the mix. Richard was Walter’s roommate in college and the man that Patty passed up to marry Walter. Tall and devastatingly handsome with cool to burn (even though he’s described as looking like Muammar Gaddafi), it can’t be a good thing to have this guy hanging around the family.
I’ll confess that I was concerned in the middle third of the novel when I feared that Franzen was returning to the form that I disliked in The Corrections. Many of the characters become completely unlikable and begin to lose some of their dimension. Add to that some observations bordering on caricature like, this one:
Walter wasn’t really even a neighbor, he didn’t belong to the homeowner’s association, and the fact that he drove a Japanese hybrid, to which he recently applied an OBAMA sticker, pointed, in her mind, toward godlessness and a callousness regarding the plight of hardworking families, like hers, who were struggling to make ends meet and raise their children to be good, loving citizens in a dangerous world.
…. and I feared the worst. Luckily, the final third of the novel rides in to save the day.
The novel tackles many Big Ideas. Franzen examines toxicity from both external (environmental) and internal (personal drama) standpoints, and highlights the extensive damage of both. The author also explores the profound impacts of the choices that we make, whether well considered or barely acknowledged, on the direction of our lives. Franzen also shows the blindness that we often have concerning our own actions. For example, when Walter accuses his son of “conniving with monsters trashing the country for their personal enrichment…”, he seems to be oblivious that this is precisely where he finds himself.
Of course, “Freedom” in its various forms is also a central theme to the novel. When Joey is pursuing the sister of a well-connected college friend, the girl’s father delivers the following oration over a (just) post-9/11 dinner:
Freedom is a pain in the ass. And that’s why it’s so imperative that we seize the opportunity that’s been presented to us this fall. To get a nation of free people to let go of their bad logic and sign on with better logic, by whatever means are necessary.
Do nefarious Republican oligarchs really speak that way? Or do we (Franzen and I) just imagine that they do? Really, I have no frame of reference.
Another kind of freedom the author brings to mind comes from disentangling oneself from family, loved ones, and any kind of meaningful personal attachments in order to live life “unencumbered.” However, Franzen shows in the third act that this type of freedom is illusory and empty. Our families/loved ones provide nourishment for our souls and provide the only real paths to forgiveness and acceptance. These are hardly the ironic hipster sentiments that I was expecting. Is irony truly dead?
As I’ve mentioned, the novel’s concluding third saved the novel for me. It turned the novel away from what I was expecting, into largely unexpected territory. Overall, I thought that this was an exceptional novel. There were quibbles that I had along the way, some of which I’ve mentioned here, that leave me wondering about Franzen’s coronation as our greatest living writer and this the great novel of our times. Time and perspective will tell.
Jonathan Franzen will be delivering the keynote address and signing books at the opening of this year’s Decatur Book Festival. I’d love to hear the author talk about this book. The event is free, but it requires a ticket. If you waited, like me, to get your tickets, I’m sorry to say that there are no more available. Come on down anyway and join me on the sidewalk outside looking for kind souls with extras.