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Franzen Frenzy: Reading Beyond The 'Freedom' Hype

Aug 24, 2010

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Two of the most frequently repeated words in Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's much-anticipated fourth novel, are "freedom" and "mistake," and they're curiously linked. For Franzen's characters, freedom means, in part, the liberty to make mistakes — mistakes that are examined, dissected minutely, and, occasionally, corrected.

Chances are, you've encountered some of the hype surrounding Franzen's first novel since his wildly acclaimed National Book Award winner, The Corrections. Is Freedom all it's cracked up to be — to wit, the Great American Novel hailed in a recent Time magazine cover story? Reading it, I ran hot and cold, and had to put aside my inflated expectations as well as Franzen's sometimes glaring ambition, which strains at parallels with the unparalleled War and Peace. That said, in the end, admiration won out.

Like The Corrections, Freedom zeroes in on the vicissitudes of an unhappy, white, middle-American family to highlight problems in American culture today. At once domestic and political, it both narrowly focuses on a lopsided love triangle — between Patty and Walter Berglund and Walter's lifelong competitor/best friend, alt-rock star Richard Katz —  and more broadly examines the stresses of our post-9/11 world.

Franzen enriches a classic morality tale — insecure young woman marries kind, devoted guy but remains chronically, destructively attracted to his flashier, unreliable, womanizing buddy — with dizzyingly accomplished nonlinear complexity. He bores deeper and deeper into his characters, and as he reveals various moral lapses — ranging from betrayals of trust to complicity with big coal companies and dubious military contractors — personal, political, environmental and global issues become intricately, impressively commingled.

It's safe to say that no one in a Franzen novel comes from a happy family. Also, his characters hold onto their adolescent beefs against their families later into adulthood than might be considered healthy or natural. Their sexuality, too, has an adolescent intensity and compulsiveness, as if they're all late-bloomers discovering sex for the first time.

Franzen writes in a tight third-person point of view, avoiding the more natural first-person even in the long chapters of Patty's autobiography — like a tennis player running around his backhand. In this document, "Mistakes Were Made," written at the suggestion of her therapist, we learn that in reaction to her successful New York parents' lack of attention, Patty, a college basketball star, devoted herself with suffocating fervor to her two kids and their home in a transitional St. Paul neighborhood. After her cherished teenage son, Joey, fled next door to live with the right-wing family of his zombie-ishly devoted girlfriend, of whom Patty strenuously disapproved, she struggled with "the great emptiness of her life, the emptiness of her nest, the pointlessness of her existence now that the kids had flown." She wonders if too much freedom is at the heart of her misery.

Patty's husband, Walter, whose Swedish surname means "mountain-land," is passionate about overpopulation and birds. His so-called best friend, Richard Katz, is also significantly named, for the feline "sociopaths of the pet world" — we're told repeatedly that cats are responsible for killing some million songbirds a day in America. Richard cycles in and out of the Berglunds' life, a constant source of anxiety and competition, whether he's releasing successful CDs or building decks to make ends meet.

As his wife becomes increasingly unhinged by unhappiness, Walter has difficulty modulating his concerns and anger. After leaving his job at the Nature Conservancy, he becomes entangled in a misguided crusade to create a sanctuary for cerulean songbirds that involves cooperation with military contractors and mountaintop-removal mining. While he worries about the "romantic imperialism of his falling for [his] fresh and Asian" assistant, his son faces his own worries about his clingy girlfriend and shady deals supplying dubious parts for trucks in post-invasion Iraq.

Filled with anger, disappointment, depression and brilliant rants about cats, cars, celebrity, media (even NPR!) and much more, Freedom isn't a frolic. But it's a surprisingly moving and even hopeful epic in which Franzen's flawed but ultimately sympathetic characters try to figure out how to heed the engraved message that catches Patty's eye at her daughter's East Coast college: "USE WELL THY FREEDOM."

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