FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen
“This was what was keeping me awake at night. This fragmentation. Because itâs the same problem everywhere. Itâs like the internet, or cable TVâthereâs never any center, thereâs no communal agreement, thereâs just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any sustained conversation, itâs all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli.”
Review by Poornima Apte (SEP 3, 2010)
Nearly a decade ago, when Jonathan Franzenâs brilliant novel The Corrections, was released, he created quite a stir in the publishing industry by refusing Oprahâs endorsement. The book went on to become a bestseller nevertheless and also won tons of literary acclaimâincluding the National Book Award.
This time around, with his new novel Freedom, Franzen is again receiving all kinds of heat from women authors who have complained about the mediaâs incessant and wide-eyed coverage of his novel. Some might believe this criticism justified. But hereâs the catch: Jonathan Franzenâs Freedom is worth every accolade and every bit of heaping praise it garners. In one word, the novel is spectacular.
Just as TheÂ Corrections looked at contemporary American life in the early â90s, Freedom trains its lens on the next decadeâwhen the wanton materialism of the Clinton years have come home to roost and is compounded by the irrational fear and overall near-nationalism of the Bush years.
Central to the novel are the BerglundsâPatty and Walter, their college-going daughter Jessica and highschooler, Joey. The opening frame of the novel is told through the eyes of their neighbors in St. Paul, Minnesotaâspecifically in the Ramsey Hill neighborhood of the city, a neighborhood that the Berglunds boldly ventured into and set up home in, before it became gentrified. All is not sunshine and cheer in the Berglund household though. Thereâs simmering discontent brewing but what is only outwardly visible to the neighbors is that Joey gets increasingly chummy with the Monaghans next door. In open defiance against his liberal parents, he moves in with this hard-core Republican family after falling in love with their daughter, Connie. The Berglunds move out shortly thereafter and leave for Washington D.C. The next anyone hears about them is when Walter makes national news as âconniving with the coal industry.â
Of course the neighbors canât figure out how Walter, a person who was âgreener than Greenpeaceâ ends up in bed with the coal industry. So Franzen moves away from this frame and over the course of the novel shows us all that happens to the storyâs characters that lead to this sequence of events.
Going back many years, Franzen describes Pattyâs privileged yet fractured childhood as the daughter of an upper-middle class New York family, the Emersons. Pattyâs mother, Joyce, is too busy committed to the greater good as a politician to spend any sustained time with Patty. The daughter has turned out to be a stranger in any caseâbecoming a star athlete instead of developing a more artistic bent like her sisters. Joyceâs brushing off a date rape incident is proof to Patty that her mother has her priorities all wrong. So when she lands an admission to college in faraway Minnesota, Patty jumps at the opportunity to place as much distance between herself and her parents, as possible.
It is at college that she meets the love of her life, Walter, and also Richard Katzâa person she is very attracted to. Richard is wild, feral, a womanizer who is trying to carve out a career in music. Walter, for his part, is decency personified. While managing a sticky and hostile situation at home in rural Minnesota, he still manages to woo Patty successfully. The two get married and settle in St. Paul.
In St. Paul, right from the outset, Patty is determined she will be everything her mother was notâshe will be a woman who wants children, who will treasure and cherish them. She puts a career on hold and becomes the most efficient stay-at-home mom around. The problems come as the kids grow olderâPatty is never able to make any real sense of Jessicaâs isolation or Joeyâs rebellion. The mental desolation she feels has her retreat to a family lake cottage to remove herself from the daily reminders of how her life has not quite turned out the way she would have liked. It is here that, in a moment of blindness that she will regret forever, she has a brief affair with Richard Katz.
Walter, for reasons of his own, decides to follow his Nature Conservancy efforts to Washington D.C.âthe couple move there and Franzen traces their lives here as wellâPattyâs unfulfilling work as a gym club receptionist, Walterâs slow fall from grace despite his best intentions and Joeyâs hesitant forays into adulthood.
There is hardly an aspect of middle class life that Franzen has not explored in this wonderful novel. Whatâs more, he does such a superb job with his characters, that the reader totally comes to inhabit their lives and sympathize with (or at least understand) every willful action.
Franzen is a master at understanding human interactionsâthe subtle âsibling rivalryâ between Walter and Richard that builds on every insecurity, is just superb. So too is Pattyâs middle-aged ennuiâa lifetime spent on her kids turns out to be, in her mind, weightless, when the kids drift apart. âJust because a person isnât making good use of her life, it doesnât stop her life from passing. In fact, it makes her life pass all the quicker,â she says. There are many who are doing the middle-aged, middle class plod who will absolutely relate to that statement.
If thereâs one complaint to be made about Freedom, it is the abrupt way in which one of the storyâs characters makes an exit toward the end. This plot twist seemed a little too convenient and clean. Perhaps Franzen had realized the story was sprawling enough as it is, and this was a quick way to avoid messiness.
All in all though, Freedom is a must-read. Absolutely believe the hype. Not a single word is wasted in its 500+ pages. At one point, when Patty talks about reading War and Peace, Walter admits heâs jealous that she gets to read such a great book for the first time. Thatâs exactly how I feel about anyone just picking up this wonderful read.
Over the course of the novel, the reader comes to see how the concept of freedomâa word that arguably synthesizes the Bush years better than any otherâis interpreted by the storyâs main characters. The freedom to indulge many a petty whim and the freedom to make lapses in judgment might not be the best kinds of liberties but they eventually still manage to lead the Berglunds to a better place.
As Walter points out, the freedom to âfuck up your lifeâ is all yours. Jonathan Franzenâs brilliant new novel shows one can do just that and still emergeâshaken, wiser, whole nevertheless.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 1,206 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux (August 31, 2010)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia page on Jonathan Franzen|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:|
- How to Be Alone : Essays (2002)
- The Discomfort Zone : A Personal History (2006)
- Further Away : Essays (2012)
- The Kraus Project : Essays by Karl Kraus (October 2013)
- Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism by Stephen J. Burn (2009)