Jonathan Franzen’s fourth novel centres on the Berglund family, who live in St. Paul, Minnesota, as the novel opens. Married couple Patty and Walter are sterling examples of post-Baby Boomer America, liberal in thought and deed, environmentally friendly, thriving in the self-renovated old home and rearing their children, Joey and Jessica, with hands-on parenting.
A third character, Richard, proves the undoing of their idealistic lifestyle. Walter’s former college roommate, Richard is a musician who initially caught Patty’s eye in college. Despite his selfish ways, particularly in terms of his many relationships, Richard is drawn to boring old Walter in a chalk-and-cheese relationship. As Richard’s fame grows, and her children grow up to achieve independence, Patty finds herself more and more unable to quiet her lustful thoughts for Richard.
The fourth main character is Joey, who is something of a parallel character to Richard, given that he is attractive, self-sufficient, and sexually advanced from a young age. As the millennium turns, and the Bush administration comes to power when Joey goes to college, Joey confirms his rejection of his parents’ values by becoming an entrepreneurial Republican who makes a decision to benefit financially from the Iraq invasion.
Jonathan Franzen has a very deft touch when it comes to establishing character, and the most fascinating character in FREEDOM is Patty, which is somewhat surprising, given that she begins the novel as an apparently passive suburban mother-of-two who is content to be a stay-at-home mother. Naturally, given that this state of affairs wouldn’t lend itself to any great conflict or tension, Patty’s character quickly becomes more proactive - or perhaps passive-aggressive is a better way to describe it.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of FREEDOM is the Autobiography of Patty Berglund, which Patty writes at her therapist’s suggestion. Here Franzen delves deeply into Patty’s psyche, or far more deeply than he does any other character in the novel, even though he uses a curiously distancing third-person technique for the strands of the novel that comprise Patty’s autobiography, which amounts to a confession of her betrayal of her husband, Walter. This distancing technique (‘The autobiographer wonders if one reason why Joyce’s voice always trembles is from struggling so hard all her life to not sound like Brooklyn.’) should be off-putting, but in fact it’s a compelling aspect to the story, because the reader is automatically put on notice that Patty is using this tone in order to distance herself from her actions, which are (presumably) so traumatising that she can’t bring herself to write them in the first-person.
Franzen’s other main characters are less interesting, however. Walter, despite his ability to reconfigure his life and become a conflicted conservationist, is something of a cliché despite Franzen’s best efforts. His relationship with the ardent young conservationist Lalitha, for example, which comes to dominate the latter half of Walter’s narrative, resembles the feverish fantasy of the older man, the conscious and knowing echoes of ‘Lolita’ in Lalitha’s name notwithstanding. Perhaps it’s the fact that Franzen has written the besotted, beautiful, intelligent Lalitha as too perfect a cipher for Walter’s mid-life crisis, but a cipher she is, and no less a cliché in her own right than if Walter had simply renounced his conservationism instead of his marriage, and gone out and bought a bright red Ferrari.
The third corner of the love triangle, the reluctant rock star Richard, is a more subtly drawn character than Walter, but again he’s something of a male fantasy figure. Irresistible to women, Richard is a gifted musician with a magnetic appeal to women and men alike. Despite his rock star ambitions, however, which generally involve a hefty dose of self-indulgent ego, Richard is unusually self-aware, and is also unusually gentle and sensitive. When the young Patty more or less throws herself at Richard during a road-trip, Richard gently steers her back towards Walter, despite the fact that Patty and Walter aren’t an item at this point. Later, when Richard finally achieves the success he has craved all along, albeit in as a kind of cult hero who becomes successful almost by default, he performs an about-face, unable or unwilling to deal with the pressures of fame. It’s to Franzen’s credit that he doesn’t impose a kind of rock star martyrdom a la Kurt Cobain on Richard, but the fact that Richard abandons his career to go roofing houses and patios is so faux-humble that it negates any authenticity Richard has built up to this point.
Arguably the most interesting character in the novel is Walter and Patty’s son, Joey. Indulged as a child (whereas his sister Jessica is kept on a tighter rein), Joey grows up to reject his parents’ liberal middle-class values, and as a young man makes a valiant attempt to financially benefit from the war in Iraq. Here, at least, we have conflict made manifest, and Joey’s internal monologues, in which he debates the merits or otherwise of conforming to expectations, particularly in terms of his commitment (or otherwise) to his childhood sweetheart Connie, have a ring of authenticity that is all too often lacking elsewhere.
It’s entirely possible, given that title, and the fact that a number of characters appear to be variations on cliché, that we’re being invited to read the novel ironically. That Franzen wants us to snigger at his emotionally stunted suburban creatures, who bumble along wrapped up in their kitchen-sink drama, only occasionally raising their gaze from their spot-lit navels to take cognizance of what has been a fairly dramatic decade in American history. If that’s the case, it’s a very strained and thin kind of irony, and one which fails to skewer its suburban heartland.
The novel is very much concerned with themes that spring from the ‘personal-is-political’. Walter’s compromises on the environment, for example, mirror the compromises he makes in his personal relationships. Joey’s decision to embrace the free-market philosophy of Republicanism equates with his rejection of his parents’ Clinton-era liberalism.
Very similar in tone and themes (and even title) to Milan Kundera’s THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, Franzen’s FREEDOM details the personal struggle to live and thrive according to a particular philosophy in the messy confusion that is day-to-day existence. The underlying theme appears to be one of a plea for compromise, whether that’s in the personal, domestic, political or artistic fields. That might well be a fair comment to make on an American political system that has grown hugely fractured ever since George Bush jnr ascended to the White House, and has intensified even more with Barack Obama’s presidency, but a novel that preaches common sense values such as the need for compromise is never going to be the most exciting of reads, particularly as the novel as a narrative form thrives on conflict.
It’s true that, while there is plenty of conflict in FREEDOM, most of it is internalised, in that most of the conflict is generated by people who are in conflict with themselves, with values that have grown outdated or are no longer useful, or practical. This provides Franzen with plenty of material for extended internal monologues, of which Patty’s autobiography is an example, but it does little to enhance the pace and momentum of the overall story.
That Franzen, hailed as a great American novelist, should write a story that is essentially so small in terms of its scale, despite the fact that American has been through 9/11, two wars, an economic meltdown, is something of a major disappointment. Adam Haslett’s UNION ATLANTIC, which was published earlier this year and covered much of the same territory as FREEDOM, is a much more mature and provocative novel.
Overall, FREEDOM is a solid novel that is competently written (although Franzen displays little flair for ambitious language), but one that is far from compelling. Written by a debutant, it would suggest promise - although, if written by a debutant, it would have been heavily edited down from its rather extensive 562 pages. As a novel from the man hailed as the Great American Novelist, however, FREEDOM is something of a disappointment, drab in places, self-indulgent in others, and only fitfully fascinating. - Declan Burke
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