OVERDUE BOOKS :: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

by mitchelldahlhoff


In 1970 it was cool to care about the planet’s future and not have kids. Now the one thing everyone agrees on, right and left, is that it’s beautiful to have a lot of babies. The more the better. Kate Winslet is pregnant, hooray hooray. Some dimwit in Iowa just had octuplets, hooray hooray. The conversation about the idiocy of SUVs stops dead the minute people say they’re buying them to protect their precious babies.

Freedom, as far as novels of its ilk go, had at the time of its release about as much cultural relevance as is possible, but not entirely for positive reasons. While I respect Jonathan Franzen for bending mass culture’s ear, even for a moment, to the literary community in this day and age, there was something about the whole scenario that was off-putting to me. Perhaps some sort of Midwestern disdain for rubbernecking, for being part of a gawping crowd.

Now that the tempest over Freedom, and Franzen, has resided to the tea cup where it rightfully belongs, it seemed like a good time to finally check out what the hoopla was about. While I generally try to divorce the context of the book and the author from the actual work itself, in cases like this, it’s difficult to not let preconceptions and expectations color the experience. And, as usually happens, the work suffers in comparison.

Freedom splits its time between two main narratives that it stitches together through a crazy-quilt collage of perspectives and voices, the first being the life and generational conflicts of the Berglunds, a typical (or maybe not) white middle-upper-class liberal family living in St. Paul and Washington DC, and the second being a love triangle between Walter and Patty Berglund and rock star Richard Katz.

The latter thread is imminently more interesting than the first, and provides the main thrust of the novel. Patty, a talented basketball player, flees her East Coast upper-crust family of politicians and lawyers after a hushed-up rape for the University of Minnesota, where she encounters the cool and aloof Richard and his nebbish, do-gooder friend Walter. Walter’s love for Patty is immediate and unconditional, nearly as strong as Patty’s own lust for Richard. While circumstance and Walter’s own determination ultimately result in their marriage, Patty never loses her desire for Richard or regret at ending up with Walter, burying it under years of housewifery and passive-aggressive bickering with Walter.

The other conflict manifests itself in Patty and Walter’s unusual son Joey, whom Patty fuels her misplaced love into. His precociousness leads him to move into their neighbors’ house while still in high school and take up a sexual relationship with their older daughter, Connie.

All of this is divulged through a variety or perspectives, book ended by sections of meandering plural viewpoints from Walter and Patty’s neighbors along with a pair of epistolary sections written by Patty. The core of the book is a series of chapters that rotate through Richard, Joey, and Walter as the POV characters. The menagerie of viewpoints seems meant to explore the complexity and ambiguity of the Berglunds’ lives, but in fact only ends up exacerbating the disconnected narrative strands the book is constantly trying, and failing, to weave together.

While Franzen may have meant for the book to feel expansive, it ultimately just feels fraught with excess. Even attempting to summarize what happens feels to be an exercise in futility; still left undiscussed are Walter’s crusade against growing the population, Patty’s stalker ex-roommate, Joey’s entrepreneurial boondoggles in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, Richard’s reinvention from a punk act to an alt-country superstar, Walter’s own extramarital love interest Lalitha, along with any number of odd tangents, including a lengthy ode to Bright Eyes and the album Lifted, of all things.

Freedom wants to have it both ways. It wants to be a realistic, intimate portrayal of a family’s intrapersonal turmoil. It also wants to be the book on American Life in the early 2000’s. A noble ambition, and perhaps one that could work, but the Berglunds live on too grand a scale to be realistic or knowable and their real problems too small to play across the epic stage the novel demands.

The resolutions of the competing narratives give the lie of just how hollow the characters are, with the generational conflict between Joey and his parents seemingly resolving itself without incident off-page; more problematic is the completion of Walter and Patty’s relationship. Just as it brought them together, fate conspires to bring them back together after they separate due to Patty’s infidelity with Richard. Patty and Richard simply admit to the impossibility of their compatibility, also without incident and off-page, while Walter’s love interest Lalitha is killed off so as to pave the way for Walter and Patty’s predestined reunion.

The issue, and one common to demise-of-relationship stories, is that in documenting the nadir of Walter and Patty’s marriage and the horrible ways in which they treat each other, the reader begins to lose any sympathy or investment in the characters or their relationship. When Walter and Patty do end up back together and make things work, it doesn’t feel triumphant or satisfying; it feels contrite and perverse.

Freedom fails to execute on any of its competing visions, which could be forgivable, if not for the temerity of its ambition, for the lack of levity or self-depreciation. The turning point of Joey’s character arc, for example, finds him literally rooting through his own shit, and at no point is the absurdity of the moment truly reflected on. The novel is loaded down with moments like this, not to mention entire characters and plot lines, that drag down what could have been an emotionally compelling chronicle of a relationship into something much less appealing.