Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was one of the most critically acclaimed novels of 2010, lauded as a potential Great American Novel. Through a white, middle-class, liberal lens, it focuses on people’s struggles to define themselves, through marriage, or rebellion, or altruism. It has been described as Dickensian in the scale of its plot and social commentary, although the author forgoes inequality and injustice for corporate corruption and environmentalism.
The novel opens with a section that focuses on the residents of the newly-gentrified suburb of St. Paul, and the narrow-minded suburban gossip that circulates about one family in particular, the Berglunds. Walter and Patty Berglund were “the young pioneers of Ramsay Hill”, he a good-natured small town boy who was “greener than Greenpeace”; she a former jock who became a stay-at-home mum and “a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee.” They have a precocious son, Joey, and a daughter, Jessica, who is practically forgettable in terms of the narrative.
They seem to be the ideal family, but as the Berglund children move into adolescence, things start to fall apart. Patty becomes a neurotic alcoholic; Joey moves in with the (*gasp*) Republican family next door; and, after they move to Washington D.C., Walter is slammed in the press (The New York Times, no less) for conspiring with coal companies to mine forested mountains. The book seems to be positioning itself to ask, Whatever happened to the bourgeois American dream?
The tone of this section is irritatingly smug and judgemental for its depiction of petty neighbourhood rivalries, its scorn for the consumption of culture, and its mocking list of elite concerns (“Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of colour accused you of destroying her neighbourhood? Was it true that Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead?”). Since the author doesn’t espouse the motivations behind these actions, it initially seems as if he has nothing but contempt for his characters.
Thankfully, this patronising perspective is brief, and the threat of an author scrabbling to capture the zeitgeist is never realised. Instead, the meat of the novel is devoted to giving each major character a voice to explain how, despite their good intentions and earnest efforts, they lost their way.
Patty’s section is in the form of an autobiographical writing project for her therapist with the characteristically self-disparaging title, “Mistakes Were Made”. Told mostly in the third person, she recounts how her politician mother’s virtual absence lead her to become a housewife, and how her need for “rabid fandom” attracted her college best friend-cum-stalker, and, later, Walter. This section also establishes the novel’s central love triangle, between Patty, Walter and his best friend, Richard, a rock star wannabe and womaniser with skewed principles.
Meanwhile, Joey, desperate to be financially independent, takes a summer job with a firm providing dodgy equipment to American forces in Iraq; Walter attempts to placate commercial interests to establish a bird sanctuary and put overpopulation on the national agenda, all while resisting the advances of his attractive assistant; and Richard struggles with his new-found fame and the urges of the wrecking ball(s) in his pants that threaten the Bergland’s fragile marriage.
The characters display similar tendencies in the way their relationships determine the route that they take in life. Children define themselves in apposition to their parents. Sibling relationships are characterised by competition. Love, between parents and children, or lovers, is undeniable and inexplicable.
This last tendency seems to excuse attractions which are otherwise out of character, particularly Richard’s, and to a lesser degree Walter’s, love for Patty. She repeatedly insists that she is neither interesting nor good, and I was never convinced that these two men would disagree.
But all the drama makes Freedom extremely readable, full of personal and professional conflicts and resolutions. Each section terminates with a cliffhanger, and each new section takes its time to address the dangling plot thread. As far as literary devices go, it’s an oldie, but a goodie, and it’s exemplified when Patty’s autobiography becomes an ingenious plot device left in the worst possible place at the worst possible time, leaving the reader cringing in anticipation.
The novel focuses on the minutiae of short spaces of time, using daily events to move the narrative forward with impressive momentum. But it also skips over vast tracts of the character’s lives, and these omissions are sometimes striking. In her narrative, Patty barely touches on “the happiest time” in her and Walter’s life, from when they are married to when Joey and Jessica are teenagers. Similarly, Jessica is barely present in the story, because she is well-adjusted, and therefore boring.
It’s a conspicuous omission, but an understandable one considering this time and character provide little conflict. Still, I would have liked to have a few pages devoted to Patty and Walter’s feelings at having children, and a house, and why they were so taken with the bourgeois interests that are ascribed to her in the introductory section. Then again, it’s a credit to Franzen that I was invested enough in the characters that I would want to share these milestones with them.
The author is also to be commended for the amount of research he has put into the novel, not only in his areas of interests, such as environmentalism and overpopulation, but also in military procurement and popular culture.
While it is an intensely political book, the author only occasionally allows the politics to overshadow the narrative. This is especially true of the Joey sections, which could very well be retitled The Cautionary Tale of Joey and the Profiteering Republican Swine. But even Walter, who seems to share many of the beliefs Franzen has expressed in interviews, has his ambitions quashed.
Freedom’s resolution is a happy one, if a little pat, and it confirms that the author is concerned with writing a novel, and not a manifesto. Parents and children resolve their conflicts, friendships are reignited, marriages renewed. The characters do not gain happiness from realising their identities, or gratifying their egos or compromising. Their redeeming conciliation is reached only through understanding, forgiveness and love, and these are only realised through painful experience.