I recently finished Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed novel “Freedom,” about a year after everybody else read it.
For the first 150 pages, I felt like throwing the book at the wall, even though I couldn’t put it down. That’s the thing about “Freedom”: It’s highly entertaining, compulsively readable ... and often insufferable.
But it gets better, steadily improving as the narrative progresses, and after I got through the first third, I found “Freedom” much easier to take. On many levels, the book is a joy to read — a witty, nuanced, hyper-realistic satire. But on another level, I often felt like Franzen — and, specifically, his take on family, society and politics in the 21st century — was full of crap. His characters are sharply drawn, and I really felt as if I knew them. But this was also part of the problem. At almost every turn, the characters fulfilled my expectations for them. It was only at the end of the book, when Franzen brings his story to a poignant close, that I felt as though I could begin putting some of my reservations aside.
“Freedom” tells the story of a middle-class Midwestern family. It is a family drama, but also a post-9/11 novel, in which the struggles, dreams and small successes of the book’s characters are shaped and altered by the terrorist attacks of 2001. “Freedom” starts long before that, by telling us the story of Patty Berglund’s suburban New York upbringing and her college years in Minnesota, where she fell in love with a musician named Richard but married his do-gooder roommate Walter.
Patty’s story is written as autobiography; Franzen then switches gears and focuses on the people close to Patty: Richard, Walter and her smart-but-amoral son, Joey. Different as these people might be, they share a basic inability to experience happiness or satisfaction. On the surface, Joey appears to be an exception: As a child, he and the neighbor girl entered into a sexual relationship, and he moved in with her as a teenager. When he heads off to college, Joey is determined to break up with the neighbor girl, so that he can pursue girls closer to his perceived social standing. But this is easier said than done. At college, Joey discovers that he misses his hometown girlfriend. And though he isn’t quite as unhappy as the adults in his life — in middle-age, Patty and Walter’s marriage has grown sour — that isn’t saying much.
I highlight Joey’s story because I think it encapsulates what I like about “Freedom,” and also what I don’t like. Joey is an interesting character, brimming with confidence and smarts, and I was interested to see what would become of his romance with the neighbor girl — I doubted their dysfunctional partnership could end happily, particularly in light of the neighbor girl’s single-minded devotion to Joey, and mental health issues. But it does. SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! The two marry in secret, despite Joey’s lust for his best friend’s sister, and even though Joey is quite prepared to cheat on the neighbor girl on an upcoming ski trip. Instead, he accidentally swallows his wedding ring, and finds himself digging through his own feces to find it, an experience that has a clarifying effect on him: He thought he was a ruthless ladykiller, but instead he’s the type of guy who will abase himself to retrieve a wedding ring. Now, I loved this section — it was hilarious, and also quite moving. But I didn’t quite believe it. I never really believed that a guy like Joey would settle down with someone as depressed and unambitious as the neighbor girl, that he would get married at the age of 20, and that he would find it so hard to leave his past behind. His storyline was fun, but also, in many ways, wildly implausible.
Throughout the book, Franzen is concerned with the concept of freedom, and what it means to his characters, each of whom are yearning for something or someone they don’t have. Patty spends much of her marriage fantasizing about what life would have been like had she married Richard, while Richard, in turn, wonders what life would have been like had he slept with Patty on a fateful road trip in college. Joey is also filled with yearning — to experience other women, and the world. (Which seems totally normal to me — few people spend the rest of their lives with their childhood sweethearts.) Each character associates true freedom with the severing of close family ties, with a lack of connection and responsibility to other people. But near the end of the book they all come to realize that this type of freedom is not desirable, or even possible. When Patty is united with her estranged family back on the East Ccoast, she understands that “Her dream of creating a fresh life, entirely from scratch, entirely independent, had been just that: a dream.” The one character who is truly free is Walter’s older brother, whom Walter finds living alone, with little money, and drinking himself to death. What good is freedom, Franzen seems to be asking, if this is what it leads to?
Franzen often gets pegged as a liberal writer, but the message at the heart of his book is fairly conservative. “Freedom” affirms basic family values, and suggests that people are happier when they embrace, rather than reject, their parents, spouses and children. After a period of separation, Patty and Walter are reunited, and appear happy, as well as wiser, while Joey and the neighbor girl have put down roots in Minneapolis and Richard has embraced his rock star success. Franzen is suggesting that freedom doesn’t point us to happiness to much as heartache, that there is such a thing as destiny, at least on the familial level, and that it cannot be denied. Which is interesting to think about, but is it true? Or is Franzen just full of crap? I’m having a tough time making up my mind.
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