Jonathan Franzen’s new novel is the talk of the town, but does it have anything to say?
Freedom: A Novel, by Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 576 pages, $28.
Reviewed by Tommy Wallach.
In two days, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux will publish Freedom, the new novel by Jonathan Franzen whose last book, The Corrections, made just about every best-of list of 2001. It also earned the National Book Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and an offer (later rescinded) to be a selection of Oprah’s Book Club. Bret Easton Ellis called it one of the three great books of his generation, and just last year, the literary website The Millions voted it the best novel of the decade.
All of which is to say that something is in the air. It is possible that the rarest of occurrences—one comparable to a visit by Halley’s Comet, or a negative quarter for Apple, or a watchable M. Night Shyamalan film—is imminent. We may be about to witness a national conversation about literature.
When was the last time it happened? Scandals don’t count (sorry James Frey), nor does genre fiction (nobody was allowed to doubt Harry Potter, only to marvel at its stratospheric success). Hipsters may have discussed the finer points of a Dave Eggers or Jonathan Safran Foer novel, but the mainstream couldn’t have cared less. And the majority of the bestseller list is fodder for non-thought—the kind of stuff you read in order to avoid having a conversation.
In truth, one might have to look back to 2001 to The Corrections itself for an equivalent historical-literary moment, meaning there is quite a bit more resting on Franzen’s shoulders than the threat of sophomore slump. He is one of a very small cadre of authors still capable of firing up America’s interest in books. And Franzen seems to be well-aware of this fact, as evidenced not only by his occasional self-aggrandizing interview or unforgiving screed against “difficult” books (see the infamous “Harper’s Essay”), but by his newest novel itself. Freedom seems to take its inevitable cultural importance as its very premise, working backwards from there. So the question isn’t so much “Will people be talking?” but “What will they be talking about?”
The novel announces its major theme on the title page, and the nearly 600 pages that follow provide the variations. The kernel of the story concerns Walter and Patty Berglund, an average, suburban couple who spend the bulk of the novel struggling with freedoms, psychological, physical, sexual, and romantic.
“One strange thing about Patty, given her strong family orientation, was that she had no discernible connection to her roots,” we are bluntly told in the clever opening chapter of Freedom, which is narrated by a kind of collective suburban dislike of the Berglunds. Soon after, we are made privy to Patty’s autobiography—written at the behest of a nameless therapist. That Patty, a tall, white, college basketball superstar (who isn’t named Harry Angstrom), writes suspiciously like Jonathan Franzen is a fact we’re expected to ignore.
(A side note: While many critics have experienced near-ecstasy at Franzen’s literary stylings, I found the prose fairly unexciting. Though there are certainly moments of Updike-inspired beauty—a washed-up New Yorker actress in her late forties is described as dressing “tarty-teenage”, and she eats a piece of cake by “parceling out each small bite for intensive savoring, as if it were the best thing that was going to happen to her that day”—just as many lines are plain nonsense, such as the description of a character’s rent payments as “so low as to be literally nominal.” And though it may seem odd to have a discussion of an author’s style noted in parentheses, it seems perfectly reasonable to me in this case.)
Patty and Walter meet in college, where Patty is lusting after Walter’s friend and roommate, Richard Katz. Katz soon becomes a rock star, as the front man of The Traumatics, and his success is rekindled decades later (because that happens all the time) with a band called Walnut Surprise. Richard and Patty circle each other lustily for a couple hundred pages but don’t end up getting down and dirty until Patty has given in and married heart-of-gold Walter. Anguish inevitably ensues for all involved.
Richard was my least favorite character in a book full of hateful personalities. I’ve found the majority of recent portrayals of musicians in fiction to be problematic (Juliet, Naked and A Visit from the Goon Squad springing most immediately to mind), but Richard is by far the worst. The problem is Franzen’s penchant to sacrifice his veneer of realism whenever he has a stereotype to inflate and pop. Take this conversation Richard has with a young, earnest fan:
The kid was wearing a hoodie and the sort of low-cut skinny pants that Katz had first observed in London. “What do you think of Tutsi Picnic?” he said. “You into them?”
“Don’t know ‘em,” Katz said.
“No way! I can’t believe that.”
“And yet it’s the truth,” Katz said.
“What about the Flagrants? Aren’t they awesome? That thirty-seven-minute song of theirs?”
“Haven’t had the pleasure.”
It’s at the phrase “thirty-seven-minute song” that Franzen departs from the realm of gentle satire and embraces farce. This boy doesn’t exist in the real world, but wouldn’t he be hilariously annoying if he did?
And Richard himself is no better. His implacably cool demeanor, his claim that his goal in life is to “put [his] penis in the vaginas of as many women as possible,” his anti-corporate rant that goes viral on the internet (one of two rants that end up going viral over the course of the novel; am I the first to coin the phrase “deus ex technologica”?)—all of it reeks of the author’s lampooning pen.
Unfortunately, this looseness extends to other characters. Take Walter and Patty’s “golden-haired and pretty” son Joey, who is said to innately “possess the answers to every test a school could give him, as though multiple-choice sequences of As and Bs and Cs and Ds were encoded in his very DNA.” This is a weirdly illogical description, and its hyperbolic inanity infuses Joey’s character throughout the novel. In high school, he moves out of his parents house and in with his girlfriend, Connie, and her family. For a decade, Connie allows Joey all manner of physical infidelity, desiring only to be with him and fulfill his every desire: “Connie could not be fought with. Insecurity, suspicion, jealousy, possessiveness, paranoia—the unseemly kind of stuff that so annoyed those friends of his who’d had, however briefly, girlfriends—were foreign to her. Whether she genuinely lacked these feelings, or whether some powerful animal intelligence led her to suppress them, [Joey] could never determine.” In college, Joey becomes involved in a plan to sell Paraguayan vehicle parts to the American military operation in Iraq.
Which brings us to what really matters about a post-millennial Franzen novel: the size of the canvas. The verisimilitude of a teenager getting involved in military transactions is immaterial to the author’s greater point, which is that our personal, political, and even environmental freedoms are inextricably intertwined.
Joey’s exercise of his entrepreneurial freedom brings him hefty rewards, but also results in the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq. Patty’s exercise of sexual freedom breaks her husband’s heart. Leading to a short-lived relationship with Richard whose end is described as not unlike that of America leaving Vietnam. Walter exercises his freedom by trying to save a species of bird that isn’t even on the endangered species list, resulting in the ironically-named Cerulean Mountain Trust shearing off the top of a mountain and selling the underlying coal to an energy company. Walter’s enthusiasm for this bizarre plan has been described in various reviews of Freedom as “weird” and “strange”; I’ll go with “inexplicably dumb.”
Walter’s passion for conservation is not, however, inexplicably dumb. His dedication to the cause is what makes him the novel’s only noble character. Before the book’s pat but touching denouement, we find Walter living in a lush, suburban enclave, where he spends his days begging the neighbors to keep their cats indoors to save the local songbirds. Personal questions about freedom (Is the desire for freedom the disease itself, or merely a symptom of the disease? Does marriage have to represent a sacrifice of freedom?) become political questions about freedom (Is the economic freedom of Americans worth more than the freedom of others? Is money a form of freedom, or the opposite?), which then become ecological questions about freedom (Does the freedom of a bird matter more than the freedom of a cat? Does the freedom of the next generation matter more than the freedom of the present generation?). Franzen reveals the ways that even the most insignificant issues are caught up in complex webs of conflicting interests, all of them relating to—say it with me—freedom.
Thankfully, Franzen eschews any simple answers, and his happy ending is a peaceful island in a roiling sea. Before Walter is reunited with Patty, he considers how perhaps he was not “made for a life of freedom and outlaw heroics” and needs “a more dully and enduringly discontented situation to struggle against and fashion an existence within.” It is enough of an answer for him, for Patty, and even for their children. But as for Walter’s dream, to conserve and protect the world that has offered us all so much freedom, Franzen fails to provide any answers.
Maybe this is the conversation we can expect once Freedom hits the stands. And the truth is that the critics are right: it’s a worthy conversation. However, even though Franzen poses all the right questions, it would probably be most encouraging if young people came down against the novel’s eventual endorsement of tending one’s own garden over the anxiety of involvement. Freedom speaks for its author’s generation, a generation that still had the freedom to choose ignorance.
As the cover of last week’s Time says, “Jonathan Franzen shows us the way we live now.” Now that’s a scary thought.