Last year I went to the Decatur book festival to hear Jonathan Franzen do a reading from his latest novel, Freedom. The guy had recently been on the cover of time magazine with the headline “Great American Novelist”, and had just been re-inaugurated to Oprah’s book club (despite pooh-poohing it 9 years earlier). Needless to say, the place was packed.
Since we’d arrived at the scheduled start time, and hadn’t camped out or been members of the small but influential Decatur literati, we ended up watching Franzen speak on video. He was congenial to his hosts, dressed like a college professor, and downplayed the humor in his text with a frowny nonchalance. At the time, I was somewhat dismissive of all the hype.
Note: Spoilers below
He read from a section early in the book about a woman named Patty Berglund. Patty’s a homemaker, the wife of Walter Berglund, the mother of two teenage children – Joey and Jessica, an upper middle class gentrifier of a St. Paul neighborhood. But Franzen read an early event that defined the rest of her life: her rape at a high school party. Patty’s mom is a politician, and her father an influential lawyer, and they both shrug it off, at first disbelieving, then offering craven workarounds – simply because the rapist is the son of an influential political donor. That one event sets up the big motifs for the rest of the book: sex, rationalization, and moral cowardice.
Patty eventually goes off to college on a basketball scholarship, where she meets roommates Walter and Richard. Richard is the one who catches her eye, a rebellious rocker (curiously described as a sexy Muammar al-Gaddafi). But it’s Walter, the nerdy, pale roommate who falls for her. Thus, the first of many love triangles.
The sentence-by-sentence writing isn’t that impressive at this stage of the book. It’s mostly functional, without any literary pyrotechnics or flashy metaphors. This can be explained away with that fact that these early chapters comprise Patty’s “autobiography”, and she describes herself as “dumber” than her parents and sisters. The prose can also be misleading, reading like a pulp novelization of a plot from Desperate Housewives, or some other chick lit (more on this later), narrowed in on Patty’s minute-by-minute feelings regarding her crazy friend Eliza, basketball games, and the two men in her life – Walter and Richard.
But Franzen is devilish in his approach. More than anything else, he’s trying to build the reader’s sympathy with Patty, since they’ll need it in strong doses later on. We see her let down and abandoned by her parents (the rape), her best friend, and even her crush Richard. Her basketball career ends in an unfortunate off-court encounter with black ice. The only one to nurse her back to health is Walter, the “good guy”, who’s kind and nerdy and nervous and has zero sex appeal. Patty ends up marrying him.
From there we skip ahead a number of years (early 2000s) to zoom in on Joey, who’s now a college freshman at UVA. Franzen’s true skill as a ventriloquist comes out, channeling a crude 19 year old guy with panache and hilarious results. Joey does the usual college freshman stuff – partying and socializing. His most pressing emotional issue is how to break off contact with his long-time high school girlfriend, Connie, despite her Siren-like appeal. He’s drawn away by his roommate’s sister, the gorgeous and snotty Jenna, and by pursuing her he ends up working with her dad, a pundit and neo-con hip-deep in defense contracts in the months leading up the Iraq war.
Walter also is trapped by questionable professional arrangements. He’s always been an environmentalist, and worked for the natural conservancy for years. But he catches his big break with a Texas oil billionaire wants to donate millions to create a wildlife reserve for the rare Cerulean warbler in rural West Virginia. The catch – coal companies get to strip mine the fossil fuels first. To complicate things, his secretary turns out to be a seductive and fawning young woman named Lalitha.
The pleasure of fiction is to see characters faced with trials and conflict, become emotionally invested in them, and then ride along they meet their fate, be it good or ill. In Freedom is the fate is mostly ill. Sex is a temptation too strong to overcome. Ethical problems (such as strip mining the Appalachians in order to save a single non-endangered bird, or shipping rusty truck parts to Iraq to fulfill a defense contract) are waved away either with utilitarian or selfish motives. And the large consequences are ignored when the personal pain becomes too great.
Walter is the one character who should stand above such moral compromise. He grew up in a home wracked by poverty and alcoholism, yet he studied and put himself through school to become a lawyer, all while running the family business and caring for his aging parents. He’s the same self-sacrificing person as a young husband and father. But when we finally “zoom-in” to the minutiae of his life and thoughts, we see that a rage possesses him. He’s constantly repeating facts about the doomed environment, global warming, an impending Malthusian crisis. And yet he joins forces with an oil baron and Big Coal. His exact reasoning isn’t clear-cut, and he does a lot of rationalization: if the populace is too stubborn, and the government too ineffectual, maybe the only chance for conservationism is cutting deals with eccentric billionaire philanthropists? Richard, always thinking with his gonads, suggests that it’s all Lalitha.
From a literature standpoint, Franzen is pretty skilled at mirroring all the character’s turmoil on top of one another, so mother and son share a similar guilt re: love triangles, and the various ethical dilemmas are like fractals. And the hyper-introspection is well-paced, so our emotions can match those of our protagonist-of-the-moment. But many good novels have done these things, and done them with more powerful prose, more heroic and empathetic characters, historical events of greater importance (At one point, Patty’s reads War and Peace, perhaps an allusion to that ambitious goal). Why is Freedom so hyped, here and now?
I’m of the mind that the educated left-leaning literature critics have been waiting for that perfect novel that would sum up all that was wrong with the Bush years, and they would praise it and shoot it to the forefront of the zeitgeist wave, and the book would make millions. But not only that, the ideas in the novel would become canonical and ensconce their current opinions for future literary readers.
Freedom fit the bill not just because of Walter’s angry granola rants, and Joey’s misadventures with war profiteering. Rationalization and moral cowardice is the deeper ill that’s decimated both private and public American institutions. The weakness of Patty, Walter, Richard and Joey are stand-ins for the American public who’ve made the choice (subconscious or not) to take the easy road.
Which leads us back to the title. Freedom. It’s not just part of America’s immigrant heritage, but our legal charter as well.
But what does freedom truly mean? If we are free, does it mean we can ignore the influence of our families, the past events of our life, our current emotions and hormones? Or are we slave to those forces? Do we break those chains by destroying the family (via adultery) or our institutions (via corruption), and prove our freedom?
Franzen (or perhaps the smug voice that overrides all four POV characters), is saying just that – freedom is a destructive force. Richard, without ties to anyone, is probably the character most free, and the most adjusted to that freedom, and yet he hovers on the edge of suicide and substance abuse. That’s the question posed by the novel, and the big idea that elevates it beyond pulp soap opera. Will the opening lines of our American story – “Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness…” – be the very ones that foresee our end?