It’s easy to say something like “when you come down to it, all American literary fiction is the same”. It’s incredibly trite and flagrantly untrue, but there is something in the work of authors like Jonathan Franzen and playwrights like Tony Kirshner that strikes me as indelibly American. I don’t believe that only Franzen could have written Freedom, but I am certain that only an American is capable of writing a novel not necessarily of this calibre but of this thematic texture.
If there’s one thing that Freedom has, it’s texture. Reading it is a frequent struggle against its characters and the society that they find themselves in, a hyper-real America that can have only been imagined by one on the ground suffering under its excesses and political metamorphoses.
The Corrections was published on September 1, 2001, and I’ve long harboured a belief that Franzen was probably upset that he had just missed out on infusing his novel with the post-September 11 shell shock that infected many authors in the intervening years. With Freedom he gets his own back, capitalising not only on September 11, but also the ensuing incursion into Afghanistan, the global financial crisis and even the rise of Obama. By waiting so long between novels, he’s had a lot to draw on – and six years can disappear in the space of a page.
Freedom is a good book. A divisive one, maybe, but still one worth the time to read.
Freedom is the long chronicle of the Berglund family, first seen through the eyes of their neighbours as they prepare to leave St. Paul after twenty years, then through the third person autobiography of matriarch Patty, and thereafter a carousel of viewpoints of two more family members, along with intermittent rock star Richard Katz.
The story of a family is a large tale to tap into, and such a vague description can’t help but sound familiar: The Corrections was also about a dysfunctional family, and the Katz elements have uncomfortable resonances with Egan and even Hornby. Franzen is more accomplished than either of those writers (even though he doesn’t have a Pulitzer to his name), and tonally Freedom is sufficiently different from The Corrections, emphasising realism over manic set pieces and downplaying the significance of an overbearing patriarch.
Everything in Freedom is closer to the ground and is much neater than The Corrections even though it is harder to summarise. I was looking at The Corrections in a book store a couple of weeks ago and laughed to read that it was essentially promoted thus:
Desperate for some pleasure to look forward to, Enid has set her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home.
That’s the great American novel for you right there!
While I say that Freedom is a good book, it’s also one that people are well within their rights to hate – much more so than many others. I can’t blame anyone who can’t get anything out of this, particularly as everyone is so difficult at one stage or another. I liked Patty from the start, but some readers will never be able to get past her. Franzen has created a believable and fallible woman in Patty Berglund, and when her voice returns to the novel after lying dormant so long I had no choice but to welcome her back. As she is the only character whose sequences are presented as a text written and existent in Freedom itself, we can take on board the possibility of an unreliable narrator, but Patty is too self-aware to realistically be taken that way. That her two pieces were produced more than six years apart shows a level of development in both her person and her understanding of the world around her that works much better than any linear progression across the years might have done.
Franzen does an excellent job of differentiating his own narrative voice from Patty’s; Patty is a good writer but prone to making Cutesy Decisions like meaningless capitalisation of words, and her occasional references to “the autobiographer” are on the nose. This works to establish her text as a legitimate piece of work, and further humanises her. I liked every facet of this character and found myself willing her on most of the time. As she falls apart, so too does her initial foray into autobiography, and Franzen himself has to take over the novel thereafter.
Franzen taps into realistic fears that many readers would subconsciously nurture: what if my son grows up into a Republican? Is war profiteering really that bad? (Yes, it is) Am I doomed to become my father or my mother? I tend to disagree with Franzen on this last point, but he’s pretty deft at covering this material so I’ll let him have it: you can become like your parents but you may realise that they were never quite as bad as you thought they were.
This mission statement of course means that the characters have regrets; Joey, excessively loved only son of Patty and Walter, wakes up and finds himself wondering exactly how he became a nineteen year old Zionist Republican war profiteer. Surprisingly, although that concept sounds somewhat extreme, Franzen finesses it to the point that it sounds practically sensible. Joey is Freedom’s biggest gamble, as Franzen isn’t near as comfortable with the youth of today as he is with the youth of the late seventies and early eighties. In his attempts to understand young people he describes a living room “equipped with a huge plasma TV and late-model Xbox”. I can’t begin to guess what Franzen imagines a “late-model Xbox” to be, but I guess that a teen is supposed to take that in the same vein as a particularly vintage wine. In another segment, when Katz has a conversation with a star-struck teenager, he is warned against paying attention to the “player-hating fringe”. This is possibly the whitest thing that Franzen has ever written.
When the novel progresses to the contemporary age, Franzen goes so far as to name check Twitter (there’s a poorly developed undercurrent of bird conservation running through these pages), but it’s disingenuous to the point of trying too hard. Franzen’s satirical voice is firmer when he has a clearer sense of what he’s talking about: the Berglunds’ redneck neighbour has a bumper sticker that reads “I’M WHITE AND I VOTE”, and the Evangelical Linda gets to say the following:
“My cat is an animal. The beasts of the earth weren’t given the gift of language. Only people were. It’s one of the ways we know we were created in God’s image.”
Which sounds wholly credible – although I will admit that it might not to an actual Evangelical person (showing my prejudice here: I can’t imagine an Evangelical would make it far enough into Freedom to meet Linda; too much tree hugging and cat hating all around before she makes her debut).
Back to Joey, though: once Franzen has gotten past his contempt for the cultural trappings of a college student in a post-9/11 world, he manages to present yet another compelling character. Joey is possibly the most outwardly loathsome character of all because his rebellious activities are essentially flying in the face of reason for the sake of upsetting his parents and his treatment of women leaves something to be desired for much of the novel. Joey is the only character susceptible to what Franzen believes is a comic tour de force, explicitly describing a not particularly amazing story as a cause for laughter. Still, the character manages to show a decent level of maturation over a much shorter time scale than either of his parents, and there remains hope for him in the end – a type becomes a character as Franzen acclimatises himself more to reality and less to prejudice against the doggedly youthful.
Walter, Patty’s devoted but equally troubled husband, is a phantom of a character for much of the novel, and Franzen buries him under an overarching “plot” that is all too difficult to connect to: mountain top removal, overpopulation, and the conservation of the handsome bird that found itself on the cover of this novel. Walter has to develop as a character while fighting against the vacuum of interest that is his passion, and this is a hard sell. His interaction with other characters, his bottomless reserves of anger, are what make him. One has to be careful not to be too distracted by Franzen’s detours into fanciful environmental issues and not-quite understanding of technology, and to notice the true core of Walter that is waiting to be read.
What I found most amazing about Freedom is that, despite being annoyed at how much of a milquetoast Walter is most of the time, I had grown to love him by the book’s end. Franzen spent so much of the book building up a scenario in which I wanted the family to come apart at the seams and go their separate ways that it was a shock to realise that this didn’t have to be their fate. He played a very long game to get to that point, and made every argument for their destruction, so it was amazing how effectively he managed to turn it around. Ultimately these characters are more human than a series of dysfunctional quirks imagined by by a successful novelist staggering under the weight of his own genius, and for that I am grateful. If Richard is little more than a satellite orbiting Walter and Patty – and nothing without them, that’s okay. If Jessica is too independent from her parents’ shadows to get her own sequences, that’s an understandable authorial decision.
The final passages of Freedom are overwhelmed with a sentimentality present nowhere else in the novel and I was unsure precisely how to react to it. That Franzen managed to make me invest in these characters after they’d made such horrible mistakes with alarming frequency guaranteed I was going to have an emotional response, and I have to admit that the construction of the segment allows him to get away with it. The last section of the book, rather like the opening, is relayed not through a character but through the omniscient personification of the neighbourhood (with the occasional focus of Linda, the Evangelical whom nobody likes). That the reader is supposed to draw the meaning out of a relatively plainly stated fact allows Franzen to manipulate the audience without infuriating them. It’s a brave move and one that left me with an ultimately warm feeling towards this novel and its contents.
Freedom takes work, but the reward it yields is so rich that I almost forgot about it in the end. Franzen mostly grasps what literature has taken to considering “the question of America”, but he operates best on a personal level. When these characters are recognisable as people, rather than symptoms of a sick and dying nation, they earn their place on the page and in the mind days after the book has been closed for good. Part of the way through Freedom I thought I was likely never to read it again, but that stance changed as I progressed. The Berglunds will one day live again.