Saturday, March 15, 2014

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom begins with an almost gossipy introduction to the Berglund family, urban homesteaders in a gentrifying St. Paul neighborhood. Father Walter is an attorney and nice guy while mother Patty is hyper-organized and community-minded, but tips over into crazy neighbor midway through the introduction. They have two children--Jessica and Joey, who is his mother's delight but has, since he entered adolescence, caused his parents some serious concern. As problems under the family's perfect surface come to light, Franzen suddenly drops us into a long section presented as Patty's autobiography (written in the third person), written some years later at the request of her therapist. We learn that Patty was a gifted athlete in a Westchester family that valued creativity over sports; when she was date-raped in high school, her parents were as concerned about their relationship with the rapist's parents as they were about the trauma to their daughter. Patty escapes to the University of Minnesota, where she stars on the basketball team, is befriended by a stalker-ish girl named Eliza, and meets aspiring rock star Richard Katz and his more stolid but kind roommate Walter. Thus begins a triangle that will continue for years, through the Berglunds' move to Washington, DC, where Walter becomes the Executive Director of a fund dedicated to preserving one bird species. When the scene shifts to Washington, Franzen suddenly provides rather long (sometimes overlong) discussions of a variety of political issues, from mining and ecology to the war in Iraq, government contracting (in a surrealistic subplot, 19-year-old Joey becomes involved in supplying truck parts to the military, necessitating his travel to Poland and Paraguay), and overpopulation. Unfortunately, for Walter, the fund's founder, a Texas oil man, has impure motives, and Walter's personal and professional lives fall apart almost simultaneously.

The title of the book is Freedom and reviewers and readers have offered numerous interpretations of what Franzen is saying about freedom. I find the message to be that freedom is illusory, a message conveyed in the ways in which seemingly random events send characters careening off in directions not, apparently, under their own control. The repetitions we see in events suggest the same thing--Joey's relationship with his long-time girlfriend Connie and roommate Jonathan, mirrors that of Patty, Richard, and Walter. Walter's neighbor at Nameless Lake, following the demise of his career, is a next-gen version of Patty's behavior in St. Paul. We may think we have freedom, but the lack of control over our own lives and our inability to stop the patterns of our lives from repeating provide evidence that this freedom is meaningless.

I find myself at somewhat of a loss when it comes to everything that has been written about Freedom.     I thought it was one interesting depiction of American life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I did not, on the other hand, see it as a novel so great as to land its author on the cover of Time.  It is not particularly original in structure or content and is well written enough to keep the reader going but not well written enough to be memorable.  I found it frustrating that Patty was still something of a cypher after reading her "autobiography," but perhaps that is Franzen's point, so it may not be fair to cite that as a flaw (although I have some concerns about other female characters as well: why, for example, do we know so much about Joey and so little about his sister Jessica?) 

I am also puzzled by the labeling of people who do not care for the book as anti-intellectual or right-wing.  This is certainly not the most difficult novel around; while Franzen does allude to the philosopher David Hume and frequently refers to War and Peace; includes long passages of explication of environmental problems; and explores ideas of freedom, entropy, and cause-and-effect, all of this is done in a fairly traditional package that it is possible to dislike without being subpar intellectually or opposed to Franzen's political views (although I can certainly see why someone who was opposed to those views would opt for a different novel).

Ever since the Oprah/Franzen brouhaha surrounding The Corrections, Franzen has been a polarizing figure, and the discussion of this book sometimes seems to be more about establishing one's position in some low brow/high brow culture war than in really considering the merits of the book. For my part, I think Freedom is a pretty good novel, but nowhere near being a great one.

Favorite passages:
But nothing disturbs the feeling of specialness like the presence of other human beings feeling identically special.

There's a hazardous sadness to the first sounds of someone else's work in the morning; it's as if stillness experiences pain in being broken.

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