Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

If I wanted to be cynical, I’d call it Stuff White People Like: The Novel. And boy do I want to be cynical.

See, it’s an Oprah book, so one’s credibility is ostensibly better served by saying it is shit. Having personally found The Story of Edgar Sawtelle to be superb, though, I’m able to put that concept out of mind for a time. For a time.

O Cerulean Warbler--thou ought to forever warble!

Walter and Patty Berglund are living what appears to be the ideal Midwestern suburban life. He’s an accountant with 3M, and she’s a stay-at-home supermom (which draws considerable scorn from her liberal careerwoman neighbors). But their fiercely independent son, Joey, goes to live next door with his girlfriend’s family, the Monaghans. Mrs. Monaghan is happy to have him, secretly because it’s a blow against the too-perfect Patty Berglund and that she seems to enjoy Joey’s company a little too much.

This is the first outward symptom of the Berglund marriage’s disease, which by no means begins here. After being treated to Patty’s autobiography (which she had to write for therapy) and eventually Walter’s backstory, we find that trouble was long overdue, and that the worst is yet to come.

With a title like Freedom, you can expect Jonathan Franzen to have written very deliberate analysis of American life. Perhaps too deliberate for some. Whenever the word “freedom” is mentioned in the book, it assumes the mantle of thematic significance, like I should be highlighting that sentence for an exam. The broad statement the book makes is that the more freedom we gain to do what we want, the more likely we will fuck up our lives. Especially if that freedom wasn’t previously available.

The Principle of Enough Rope

Take Patty, for instance.

She first agreed to date Walter back in the acid-washed eighties so she could secretly get closer to Richard Katz, his dickish but genuine punk rocker friend. She eventually chooses nice-guy Walter, favoring a more emotionally secure yet less exciting life. But this doesn’t bode well.

If you’re a girl, my understanding is that despite all the hazards guaranteed by the “Bad Boy phase” you are not supposed to skip it; it is necessary. Patty never indulges in her curiosity in Richard, and so that curiosity never truly abates. So you can foresee the inevitable Trouble when Patty is left alone while Walter is away on business in Washington, and Richard comes to town.

For this and other reasons Patty reminds me of Edna Pontillier from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, a novel of which I have a complicated opinion. Edna is married to a doting yet belittling daddy figure, and when she emancipates herself from him, Hell yes, go Edna. But instead of becoming a fully realized 28-year-old, she makes the kinds of mistakes a 16-year-old girl would, having not lived out that level of maturity yet. Edna, what are you doing? Stop it! Stop it! It’s a book about someone who gains freedom that she clearly isn’t ready for.

In Freedom you can say the same for Walter and other characters who hastily hang themselves when given, you know, a certain length of cord.

It strains belief at times. Patty, who is as sharp as a mound of Play-Doh, somehow writes her autobiography with an exquisitely Franzenite command of the language. Walter’s ability to justify getting in bed with corrupt oil tycoons to advance his conservationist agenda displays a delusion that horrifies so long as you can believe someone capable of it.

But the number one reason most people dislike this book is usually reduced to a single statement:

“I don’t like any of the characters.”

Does it help when I tell you that you’re not supposed to? Probably not. But the fact is that the novel’s appeal is voyeuristic, not sympathetic, and a good many readers are uncomfortable with that. It’s about discovering the causes of each character’s emotional maladies and stunted personal growth (Hint: begin with the wretched parents). Everyone is wrong about everyone, and they are especially wrong about themselves.

I’m making this sound like a thoroughly cynical book. Which it is until hope for the characters emerges very late in the story. I wanted to have Joey Berglund assassinated, and hung upside-down like Mussolini. And burned. But he, the most sociopathic narcissist in the book, undergoes a change by sorting through his own shit (you think I only mean that figuratively), and he becomes the book’s most matured and compassionate person. Walter and Patty reach a resolution that takes into account the damage done, but they find a way to move on. The cynicism reaches its end.

None of this means much unless you feel the characters’ plights are relatable and speak to American culture– the “they” are “us” effect. Which doesn’t come easily here because the characters are indeed rarely sympathetic. The key to whether or not you enjoy Freedom is if you feel like, in some way, Franzen’s got your number. To speak for myself, I’ve got enough Walter in me that it has me slightly worried.

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3 thoughts on “Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

  1. There you are. You had gone for a while, but now your back, so that is good.

    “See, it’s an Oprah book, so one’s credibility is ostensibly better served by saying it is shit.” – Not all Oprah books are shit, mind you. We have ‘Richard and Judy’ books over here… I avoid them like the plague.

    It’s so hard when you don’t like the characters. I mean, it’s ok if it’s just one or two, but the WHOLE cast? ‘Free Food For Millionaires’. Hang em all.

  2. After having enjoyed The Road and loved Edgar Sawtelle, I don’t find the Oprah sticker to be the literary Mark of Cain that other people still insist it is. It seems to me that once a novel receives that distinction, it simply becomes cool to hate on it, merits notwithstanding.
    Now, I’m unfamiliar with the books these Richard and Judy people are plugging, and to an American it’s not altogether obvious what’s wrong with those two. But I’d be very curious to know.

  3. Ahh yes, our Richard and Judy books. They were the primetime talkshow couple for many many years running on UK telly. They suggested books like ‘The Lovely Bones’ as a staple reading diet for the masses. Basically they recommend books with no real bite, easy to read, chilled out, popular titles that serve as conversation openers at a dinner party rather than anything substantial.

    But I think a bit of Barbara Kingsolver got in there once, along with a few other titles of some literary merit.

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