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The myth of modern freedom.

September 13, 2010

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Fourth Estate, $32.99

Jonathan Franzen became my literary hero when he declared his discomfort over his third novel, The Corrections, being selected for Oprah’s Book Club back in 2001. Shunning the Queen of Media—and, arguably, one of America’s most powerful women—certainly did Franzen no harm: The Corrections went on to reap fulsome critical praise and accolades, including the 2001 National Book Award and a spot on the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction shortlist.

Since then, Franzen has published some notable non-fiction (including a brilliant collection of essays, How to be Alone, and a charming memoir, The Discomfort Zone), leaving those of us who have been harbouring a massive literary crush on him for nearly a decade to cultivate epic and possibly unreasonable expectations for his next fictional effort. When I discovered an uncorrected proof copy of his new novel, Freedom, in the back room of the bookshop where I work, I squealed like a teenager and took it home before any other staff members could get a look in. I’m considerate like that.

My selfishness was totally justified: Freedom has been worth waiting almost ten years for. At almost 600 pages, it features that familiar Franzen blend of intricate detail and panoramic scope, all caught in the unsparing spotlight of his sardonic wit and barely tempered rage.

Like The Corrections, Freedom is both a family saga and a probing portrait of contemporary America; but, despite their similar themes, the two novels are very different. Freedom’s opening chapter gives us a potted history of the rise and fall of Walter and Patty Berglund, an educated, liberal Midwestern couple whose comfortable existence in suburban Minnesota begins to splinter when their teenage son, Joey, moves in with the crazy Republican family next door. The novel flows in several different directions from this point: we go back to Patty’s girlhood and her years as a college basketball star, witnessing the peculiar evolution of her relationship with Walter and her awkward attempts to smooth over the (mutual) attraction she feels towards Walter’s best friend, aspiring rock star Richard Katz; then we move forward to Joey’s college years (a turgidly entertaining blend of Machiavellian maneuvering and fumbling naivete) and the looming train wreck of his parents’ relationship. Walter and Patty each face an agonising stand-off between their ethics and their urges: staunchly green Walter’s environmental crusade threatens to backfire dramatically as he strikes a dubious business deal with the Big Coal, and Patty feebly struggles to resist the tug of old desires as Richard Katz re-enters her life. It’s a wonderfully entertaining and convoluted catalogue of human error, but, amid all the wrong decisions and emotional disasters, there’s humour, redemption, and hope.

Franzen is a gifted wordsmith—he has a wonderfully acerbic turn of phrase (Patty is described as ‘morbidly competitive’), and an amazing ability to describe scenes with a level of detail that’s never tedious, despite its microscopic focus. It’s his ability to capture small but revealing moments that gives his novels such acute, almost painful realism: when Walter meets Patty’s parents for the first time, their awkward restaurant dinner is punctuated by ‘silent manipulation of tableware.’

But it’s Franzen’s knack for characterisation that drives his fiction; he exposes the emotional scaffolding of his creations with an unforgiving hand. Richard Katz, who spends years as the front man of semi-obscure rock band the Traumatics, is utterly bewildered by the sudden arrival of musical fame and success: ‘grim situations were Katz’s niche the way murky water was a carp’s. His best years with the Traumatics had coincided with Regan I, Regan II, and Bush I; Bill Clinton (at least pre-Lewinsky) had been something of a trial for him.’ Franzen’s characters may be hard to like, but they are frighteningly true to life. Treading that line between writing people who are realistic and writing people who are so repellant that no reader actually cares what becomes of them is tricky, but Freedom is the best example yet of Franzen’s ability to stay on the tightrope. Everyone in this book needs a good punch in the face at some point, but that’s because they’re so full of the frustrations and foibles of real people. Patty might be passive-aggressive and selfish, but she’s redeemed by her droll self-awareness; Joey’s egocentric stubbornness and cowardice become strangely forgivable as we watch him struggle to negotiate the moral complexities of adult life. The Berglunds are all flawed, but so is their environment: a world full of lies, infidelity, and the sour corruption of money and big business. How they attempt to reconcile their morals and desires as they flail around in this roiling cauldron of contemporary scruples is what makes Freedom not just a riotously entertaining read, but a poignant and provocative examination of our times.

As the title might suggest, Franzen’s chief concern in this novel is the notion of our freedom, or the irony of it—how intricately it’s bound to the personal and the political, and how readily and paradoxically it can trap us. In Franzen’s hands, the all-American family is once again a way to explore the big ideas: our affluence versus our guilt, our moral compass versus our social prejudice. But any story that revolves around these ideas, however intangible they may be, is a story about people, and Franzen never forgets that. The Berglunds may not be everyone’s ideal neighbours, but their experiences are as revealing as they are absorbing; I loved every single one of the 560 pages that I spent in their company.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Angela Haworth permalink
    June 3, 2011 5:27 am

    Richard Katz & The Traumatics just got a lot less fictional –
    Vanity Fair Italy article and all…

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