HarperCollins Publisher Ltd.
Hardcover, 562 pages
Freedom: The rope with which Franzen’s people hang—or save—themselves
One of the many strengths of the great 20th century novelist John Updike was his ability to create gripping, funny, dramatic, heartbreaking, thought-provoking fiction out of domestic relationships involving ordinary people. In this, Jonathan Franzen is a worthy successor and his newest novel, Freedom, has in the minds of many reviewers already accorded him lofty status among the younger fiction writers of the new century.
Freedom concerns the lives of the members of one small family—Walter and Patty Berglund of Minneapolis-St. Paul and their two children Jessica and Joey—and that of the musician Richard Katz, Walter’s best friend since university. After arousing our curiosity with a reference to Walter’s fall from grace twenty years later, the novel opens in the mid-1980s, when Patty and Walter—part of the cutting edge of the revitalization of a central St. Paul neighbourhood—are doing their best to raise their two children perfectly. Their parenting efforts are conducted under the disparaging scrutiny of their neighbours, who feel that Patty in particular is far too earnest and focused on her children—especially her son.
Franzen opens with one of the book’s many funny-because-they’re-so-true lists, in this case concerning the kinds of details that young parents of the Berglunds’ demographic were obsessed with in the Eighties:
[… W]hat about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead?
But despite how we can relate to the Berglunds’ efforts to “get it right” as parents and community members, we soon share not only the neighbours’ disdain for Patty, but also their subsequent schadenfreude when her precious and precocious teenaged son moves in next door with the only family on the block that even Patty looks down on.
As he proved in The Corrections, one of Franzen’s great strengths as a writer is his ability to remind us not to judge anyone exclusively on the basis of their behaviour. In the second section of the book, we become privy to a memoir that Patty has written in an attempt to heal a depression that began with Joey’s flight from home. We begin to appreciate how she first came to live in the Twin Cities with Walter, with no connection to her family on Long Island or even her friends from university. We learn how her dysfunctional passage through adolescence and young adulthood drove her to the good intentions that have now begun to derail her life and those of her children and her husband. We find ourselves unexpectedly in her corner – and, in my case at least, also admiring the facility with which Franzen can write from a female, first-person point of view.
As the Berglund story continues to unfold, we are also offered the opportunity to see the family’s little world from various other points of view as Walter, Joey and Richard Katz take their turns as protagonists. Katz, like many artists, can love only in the abstract; he may be a song-writer but his real-life relationships with human beings, not to mention with such words as “loyalty” and “honesty,” are precarious at best. The close connection between the vastly different Richard and Walter is important to both of them, but it is complicated by an attraction between Richard and Patty that can only lead to trouble. How this attraction destroys the Berglund family unit becomes the plot’s driving force, leading straight through to the novel’s unexpected and successful conclusion.
Franzen’s choice of the word “freedom” as the title of the novel provides an intriguing thread as the plot unfolds, for it is during their moments of freedom – sometimes offered to them by those closest to them, sometimes taken, sometimes merely the result of their having too much time on their hands – that each of the characters in turn makes decisions or takes steps that alter their lives permanently. Occasionally the choices they make are ones that enrich their lives, but more often the consequences are negative and far-reaching. Thematically, Franzen also seems intrigued by relationships between people who are in love with people who are not in love with them, and what happens when the objects of their affection stop fighting and succumb.
As Updike did before him, Jonathan Franzen is capturing an era, detailing its public upheavals and personal concerns in ways to which readers can easily relate—at least those of us who have been (white) middle-class adults since the century began. Freedom is a long book, much of it focused on personal minutae, and it is a testament to Franzen’s talent that its pace rarely lags. Inasmuch as fiction writers can contribute as much as their non-fiction colleagues to the chronicle of the times in which they live (which obviously is true), Franzen is a worthy contributor to ours.