Thursday, September 16, 2010
The Book I Read: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Can you be a social novelist and hate people? The question seems relevant after finishing Jonathan Franzen's much-celebrated Freedom, hyped as an encompassing novel of our times and accompanied by a rehashing of the unsmiling Franzen's pronouncements about just What's Wrong With Everything. Although a significant portion of Freedom is specifically spent dealing with what a mess we're all making of the environment and how the Bush administration screwed up the Iraq reconstruction, Franzen reveals an unexpected conservative streak in his assignment of blame for societal ills to our numerous personal freedoms. Too many choices, too many connections, and too little time to think deep thoughts seem to be the problem.
I seem to be in the minority but I can't help but detect a mocking streak in Franzen's depiction of Walter and Patty Berglund, a superficially happy Minnesota couple that is the novel's center. Both Walter and Patty are afraid of their freedom and work hard to avoid their parents mistakes by effacing their own identities with a kind of pathological niceness. Walter is a corporate lawyer turned conservationist who survived an alcoholic father to make something of himself; now he's a man with a kind word and a lecture on the evils of overpopulation always at the ready. As assuredly as Franzen moves Freedom along, there is never a moment where Walter exists in space. He's always on the move and always operating in service of some point Franzen wants to make. Walter's supreme irony, completely unremarked upon as far as I can tell, is that he hated his own bleak childhood so much that he has become a zero-population advocate. The question is never discussed, but does Walter want grandchildren? Patty met Walter during her college basketball career at Minnesota. Patty's mother is a New York legislator so determined to respect her children's individuality that she fails to realize Patty's sisters are barely functional as adults and doesn't know how to deal with Patty being raped as a teenager. Patty's scars are more believably sketched and it's easy to understand why she might choose Walter over his friend Richard, a surly alternative rock musician. It's a mistake though for Franzen to attempt to write a large part of the book as Patty's "autobiography". Besides the fact that Patty sounds an awful lot like Jonathan Franzen, the choice leads to too much self-justification and and apology.
Freedom becomes more didactic the longer it goes on. Walter gets involved in a plan to save an endangered bird species and must rationalize to himself the amount of mountaintop removal mining needed to secure a safe habitat. Patty cedes center stage to the Berglund's son Joey, a motivated but not particularly atypical young man whose decision to go home with a roommate for Thanksgiving somehow leads to him becoming a supplier of truck parts to the American military and the anti-Iraq sentiment is as predictable as an episode of Frontline. The description of Joey's recruitment into the military industrial complex while still an undergrad is rushed and again seems to exist just to get to a discussion of Iraq that Franzen wants to have.
The best part of Freedom is anything involving Richard, a musician with an improbable career arc (it's as if John Cale turned into Jeff Tweedy) who's the one character growing, changing, and living in a non-schematic way. The attraction between Richard and Patty started in college carries through the novel and causes all the major characters to reconsider their life choices. Richard is a survivor and the one character I felt still capable of greatness as the Berglunds settle into the rest of their lives with varying degrees of happiness. Freedom is finally a novel of ideas, not people. If only Franzen's natural condescension had been suppressed; I would have liked to hear him engage with the world, not just yell at it.