Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom
Enduring epic or just epithetic?
I wonder what Jonathan Franzen thinks of Twitter. The ultimate democratic trinket, it allows absolutely anyone, regardless of sex, race, creed, or qualification to espouse their point of view to anyone, everyone, and no one in particular. What’s more, there is this curiously strong sentiment of empowerment surrounding the thing, that would be comparable only to—yet has long been absent from—voting. This is reinforced daily by the media treating Twitter posts and Facebook updates as breaking news, or by the angry Twitter tirades of jealous rivals showing up as prominently as the glowing Franzen reviews that inspire them. It all just sounds so Franzien.
For a writer so plainly suspicious of his times and Arcadian in his tastes (he doggedly persists in owning a rotary phone, and his T.V set still has rabbit ears for reception) there is no denying that he is a, if not the, writer of his time, whether he likes it or not. The man has been on the cover of Time magazine, the President read an advanced copy of his new book, he’s warred and now reconciled with the unofficial queen of America, Oprah Winfrey, and he is the focus of a raging Twitter tizzy. The society he analyzes and so often bemoans is nonetheless very enthusiastic about him and is busily processing the author like grist through its mill, rather than the other way around. It’s quite the reversal of the traditional relationship between a writer and his society. Yes, for better or worse, Franzen is the writer of his times, but is his new novel, Freedom, the book of our times, as so many are hailing it? The fact that I slid my Chase “Freedom” credit card across the counter when paying for the hefty volume and had to think, Ok Franzen, you got me, before even cracking the cover bode tellingly of the reading experience yet to come.
There’s no question that Franzen is a careful student of his times, and the most prominent characteristic of Freedom is the incredible accuracy of his observations. The very structure of the novel imitates forms peculiar to American experience. Freedom begins with a gloss. The reader is introduced to the Berglund family via a brief, tabloid-like, cover story composed of neighborhood hearsay, eyewitness accounts, rumors, and conjectures, which the reader has little choice but to accept as truth (perhaps, borrowing from Franzen’s experiences with sound-bite-ridden media dramas?). The tone is whispered, gossipy, and objectifying, and accomplishes a double satire, at once caricaturing the Berglunds as one of those ubiquitous, yuppie-progressive, privately dysfunctional families, while simultaneously pegging the neighborhood community (i.e. the American public) as a shallow, hypercritical, and scandal-savoring people.
By the end of these twenty-three pages of brutally unflattering, “authoritative” summary the reader’s impression of the Berglunds is not particularly favorable. Patty Berglund is a duplicitous character, concealing near lunatic tendencies and a disturbing infatuation with her son behind a “nicey-nice,” “house-wifey” façade. Her husband Walter is a vapor of a character, pleasant, pallid, and spineless, lacking the power and/or will to fight the unraveling of his family. Their eldest daughter, Jessica, is too mature and healthy to merit much gossip, but their son, Joey, provides plenty by being basically an all around punk. By the end of the introductory section, ironically titled “Good Neighbors,” the reader knows way too much and absolutely nothing about the Berglunds, a definitive style of knowing in the modern American experience.
Franzen tends to begin with biting satire, spilling forth the ugly innards of each character’s nature in a coldly casual style that highlights his diagnostic acumen and frequently gets him called a superior jerk. But in all fairness, this is a pretty realistic approximation of the judgmental way people tend to view each other at the outset. Moreover, Franzen pours the greater part of his talent into bringing the reader past the satire and into the complex emotional interior of his characters. This he does in the next section of Freedom, which takes the form of another uniquely modern cultural artifact, the therapeutic memoir, and this is probably the gem of the novel.
Patty, at the behest of her shrink, writes out her and Walter’s history, complete with childhood, college years and their problematic friendship with the famous musician Richard Katz. The portrait that results is fascinating and deeply convincing. The intimacy of the acquaintance Franzen builds between his characters and his reader, through Patty’s story, forges a deep sense of investment in their marriage, so much so that I didn’t move through the novel feeling as though I were reading a well-written account of the fortunes and failings of a married couple. Rather, I felt as if I were spending thirty years of my life married to Patty Berglund, and married to Walter Berglund, thirty years of being warped and stretched by the love and hatred, contempt and grace I felt for each. At this point Freedom has all the telltale signs of being a truly literary novel. It expands its readers, and allows them to learn things they could otherwise know only through reincarnation, the living of other lives.
This hearkens back to Franzen’s own ideas of what literature ought to do. In his essay “Why Bother?” otherwise known as “The Harper’s Essay,” Franzen gives Anne Heath’s description of why hard-core readers persist in reading serious literature. It is because it “impinges on the embedded circumstances in people’s lives in such a way that they have to deal with them. And, in so dealing, they come to see themselves as deeper and more capable of handling their inability to have a totally predictable life.” This is undoubtedly an accomplishment of Freedom.
It’s also, a canny insight into the heart of the novel, the main characters of which, could each at some point, sum up their central conflict with the statement: “this is not the life I expected.” Patty cuts ties with a painfully disappointing family in the naïve hope of creating, ex nihilo, a new self, a new family, and a new life; Walter, the “greener than Green Peace,” anti-population-growth activist, finds himself with two kids and a job touting the virtue of the land-raping coal industry; and Joey, the arrogant son, aspires to the ethically unfettered pursuit of money and sex, only to find himself unexpectedly constrained by personal integrity and near irrational fidelity. These characters and others embark on life with an innocent and unquestioning faith in the American promise of freedom—freedom to invent and define yourself, freedom to have anything you can dream, to choose from the near infinity of possibilities hanging like ripe fruit heavy from a bough, requiring only to be plucked and savored. Ultimately however, each of these characters has to come to terms with the reality beyond the false advertising, without the chimerical allure of absolute freedom. What they find is that all this freedom is overrated, if it really even exists at all.
An apt metaphor comes in one of the novels more repulsive yet humorous episodes, in which a swallowed wedding ring must be excavated from the owner’s own feces. The nadir of each character’s story delivers them to the task of picking through the foul-smelling, soiled, pieces of their messy, shattered lives, but miraculously, it’s out of the, well, shit that they recognize and retrieve the most valuable thing. Restoration is found, not in a life freely chosen or engineered, but rather in the life each has been given, their proverbial “lot in life,” doled out in the terribly undemocratic fashion of genetics, or family origin, or just dumb luck (like Patty’s slip on the ice). Only when they stop trying to flee the life that has chosen them, and instead choose to love that which they never chose do Franzen’s characters find, not the ecstatic transcendence promised by the iPod or E-harmony commercial, but peace and contentment, those two utterly unsellable commodities.
Truly, Franzen is at his brilliant best when creating immensely real characters whose lives and needs feel in many ways more urgent than those of the flesh-and-blood people around us. Unfortunately, Franzen at his worst is Franzen trying to figure out what the heck to do with those incredible characters once he’s made them. For all the promise of Freedom, and all its embryonic intimations of profundity, the plot is unfortunately riddled with problems that seriously weaken the novel as a whole.
For instance, how many novels can believably feature male characters stumbling into involvement in morally dubious, international moneymaking schemes that carry them off to remote parts of the world and then end in disaster? Apparently Franzen thought one more, so off Joey Berglund goes to South America to buy junk parts for the American military effort in Iraq, in a narrative twist that is basically the revamped plotline of Chip in The Corrections.
The gravest of Freedom’s narrative missteps, however, is the entire Walter-Lalitha affair. The Berglunds move to D.C. for Walter’s work on the Cerulean Mountain Trust, a shady pseudo-conservation effort headed by a coal millionaire. Conveniently, Walter’s young, perky, and infatuated assistant, Lalitha, happens to live right in the Berglund’s very own home. How this unusual and unlikely arrangement came to be is casually glossed over, but of course it leads to the inevitable. As secrets emerge of Patty’s indiscretions with their old friend Richard, Walter throws Patty out with borderline enthusiasm to commence the affair with Lalitha that he’d already mentally and verbally committed to anyway. Franzen admirably explores Walter’s hesitations and misgivings at the point of initiating the affair, but then just plunges ahead anyway, trying to make something lovely and legitimate out of a relationship he’d previously done his best to undermine. Franzen sends the couple off on an absurd love holiday in the woods, where, amid the trees and endangered birds, Lalitha coos such noxious endearments as, “I love seeing how much you enjoy looking for animals,” and Walter drivels back things like “I keep thinking you can’t get any more perfect…and then you say something even more perfect.” Yikes! The reader neither buys it nor believes Franzen has the audacity to seriously try to sell it. Franzen doesn’t seem aware of the fidelity he’s inspired in the reader towards the Berglund’s marriage, so that the live-in seductress threatening to destroy a relationship, the success of which the reader is deeply invested in, is an anathema. The reader takes about as much pleasure in watching Walter and Lalitha fondle each other in the forest as the Berglund children would be likely to, which is to say, less than none. The icing on the cake of these plot foibles is Franzen’s use of a deus ex machina car crash that puts a tidy end to Lalitha and the blissful tryst that would otherwise have prevented a Berglund marital reconciliation.
There is something more that doesn’t jive about the whole affair though, and it’s a problem that weakens the entire latter half of the narrative. The refrain throughout the novel is that Walter is a good man. His goodness is touted from every corner of the novel, and the picture we see of him in college is indeed a complexly and courageously good man. He cares for his parents in their old age; he stands up to people, speaks his mind, and demands the truth. His reputation for goodness follows him into the second half of the novel, but the evidence of it does not. In fact, there is an almost total disconnect between the thoroughly good young Walter and the adult Walter, who is alternately nice and wimpy or enraged and impotent, but not particularly good at all. They don’t even seem like the same person. It’s as if Franzen lost sight of the profound character he started with, and then went through the motions of the rest of the novel with only the husk of the man.
For all of Franzen’s mastery of realism, he seems infected with a pessimism that drags his characters so far down into the mire that it’s no longer realistic. Admittedly, there tends to be a streak of the doomsday seer in most great writers, but if you step back and survey the line up of Franzen’s characters, you discover a startling homogeneity of cataclysmically unhappy, morally disfigured, adulterers. Between The Corrections and Freedom I count thirteen adulterers or cheaters, three statutory rapists, and one traditional, run-of-the-mill, rapist. The fidelity statistics in this country certainly are grim, but when most of an author’s characters are coming apart at the exact same seams one begins to suspect the author of a lack of creativity. You have to wonder if infidelity is a serious theme Franzen is exploring or something he considers simply a given when telling any American story, like the presupposition of hook-ups when watching MTV’s The Real World. It’s hard to tell if Franzen is making much of it, making light of it, or simply lacks the artistic vision to render life in more nuanced and interesting terms.
So to the big question, is Freedom the book of our times? It certainly is an impressive snapshot of a moment in history, with exquisite characters, who embody the temperaments, cares, and concerns of our times. But I fear, or perhaps I hope, it’s a snapshot we’re destined to promptly outgrow. Franzen ponders in his Harper’s Essay, “how to design a craft that can float on history for as long as it takes to build it?” In other words, how to craft a work of Literature that will remain true despite the accelerating rate of cultural change? The answer, it would seem, is to make the foundation of the structure out of something more enduring than the currents of cultural change. Once Franzen’s bountiful cultural references to things like text messaging, blogs, and The White Stripes fade to anachronisms, once Twitter is tweeting new topics, and Oprah’s book club has moved on to new novels, all that will remain to draw readers back to Freedom is the timeless and fundamental wisdom about humanity that it illuminates, and of that I’m afraid there might not be enough to keep Freedom afloat for long.
Jacqueline Holland lives and writes in Chicago.