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[442] Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

” At that point, the only thing that could have thrown Walter back into the bad ways he’d felt in college, when he’d been tormented by his sense of losing to the person he loved too much not to care about beating, would have been some bizarre pathological sequence of events. Things at home would have had to sour very badly. Walter would have had to have terrible conflicts with Joey, . . . and Patty would have to fall violently in love with Richard. What were the chances of all that happening? ” (139)

The cause of the slow, but intense disintegration of the Berglund family, the once gentrifier and ambassador of their neighborhood in St. Paul, is indeed a bizarre pathological sequence of events that Franzen has captured with overwritten zeal in Freedom. Like any novel that aims for an epic stature by tackling an universal theme but that ensues a proliferation of strongly polarized opinions, Freedom is bound to be, and is indeed, didactic and repetitive.

The Berglunds are happily married—a disillusion they have lived on until the untimely re-emergence of Patty’s first love, Richard Katz (whom Walter secretly admires and envies), the college roommate of her intelligent and big-hearted husband, Walter. That Patty’s heart has never left Richard and that she has encouraged Walter’s wrong impression of her have set her marriage up for tragedy. When her son Joey, whom she overdotes and pampers with too much attention, moves in with the aggressive Republican neighbor and falls in love with their daughter, Patty is on the last straw of her sanity.

And here: here is an actual serious personal failing of Walter’s: he couldn’t accept that Joey wasn’t like him. If Joey had sided with underdogs, if Joey had loved nature, if Joey had been indifferent to money, he and Walter would have gotten along famously. But Joey, from infancy onward, was a person more in the mod of Richard Katz—effortlessly cool, ruggedly confident, totally focused on getting what he wanted, impervious to moralizing, unafraid of girls—and Walter carried all his frustration and disappointment with his son to Patty and laid it at her feet, as if she were to blame. (149)

One can understand, and sympathize with Walter’s agony. He has terrible conflicts with his son and fails to understand him and earns his respect. He lives amidst a country, a society that is impervious to moralizing. While the trouble with their son and Patty’s rekindled affair eat away the Berglund’s marriage from inside, Walter, an environmental attorney, takes up the cause of wildlife preservation, trying to establish a bird sanctuary in West Virginia. The love he feels for the natural creatures whose habitat he’s protecting is founded on projection: on identification with their own wish to be left alone by noisy human beings. He, himself, also withdraws to solitude to contemplate how he has wasted his life loving someone who is a lie.

Hearing that she’d gone back to Richard ought to have liberated him, ought to have freed him to enjoy Lalitha with the cleanest of consciences. But it didn’t feel like a liberation, it felt like a death. . . . Despite his avowals that the marriage was over, he hadn’t believed it one tiny bit. (480)

Freedom obviously bears the mission to demonstrate, to expose, and to mock the illusory nature of our freedom. Freedom abused and misconstrued. Through the Berglunds and their six degrees of separation, Franzen shows, with such disdainful imperviousness of a voice, people who are not only unable but unwilling to admit certain truths whose logic is self-evident. Even Walter Berglund, the sanest and the only likable character worthy of respect, is defeated and made miserable by people who abuse their freedom. However unworkable his life with Patty had become, he loves her in some wholly other (outlandish) way, some larger and more abstract but nevertheless essential way that is about a lifetime of responsibility—about being a good person. Walter is as much a light in the novel as the ideal from which our society has egregiously deviated.

Freedom shows how our freedom seem to infringe us as well as liberate us and cause us to resent the way others view and practice these freedoms to our dismay and discomfort. It reminds us freedom doesn’t imply self-entitlement, which seems to have festered our society. Though the Berglunds are too ‘mid-Western” to be everyman, the novel calls for reading beyond the obvious narrative about them to our society. Despite a genuine voice and straightforward style, Freedom is constructed on seemingly incessant cycles and tedium. Although the theme of freedom is woven nicely throughout in a way that resonates with today’s reality, the tiresome length disqualifies its candidacy for re-read. That said, upon finishing it I realize how smart the novel is in its employment of synecdoche—Berglund house itself is America. On the account of this recognition alone I shall rate it a “Read”.

562 pp. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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10 Responses

  1. Definitely a ‘smart’ novel! I doubt I’ll reread it either, but it was one of my favorites of 2010. Franzen is an amazing writer.

    • Franzen never disappoints me. He’s very witty and observant. Although certain sections of the book slog a bit, I do like how he resolves all the different fronts of the story.

  2. Perhaps it lives up to its hype. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Well, you know how I feel about it. I WILL say that it was probably one of the better book club discussions we’ve ever had.

  4. Your last line alone has convinced me that this is a must read. I have it on my shelf but have been waiting until I read The Corrections first.

    • The novel covers a tremendous amount of ground, not just with the elaborate characterizations, but in terms of the backdrops. From Minnesota to New York to DC to West Virginia to South America, Franzen touches on 9/11, the Iraq war, environmentalism, overpopulation, rampant consumerism and the political fracturing of America, but by keeping it in terms of a family disintegration, he keeps the story relatable.

      One of the key things that comes up repeatedly is the idea that Americans have about freedom. It’s a word tossed around easily, and as Franzen explores here, many take it as their God given right to engage in mass consumption and lead completely unexamined lives with no regard for the consequences. Those who ask for more social responsibility are derided as ‘liberals’ and ‘intellectuals’ and ’elitists’.

      This is a must read for Americans.

  5. Seems good. Will give a try! Thank you

    • I liked it okay at the beginning, but I loved this book after I finished. Could not put it down. What made it so compelling for me was Franzen’s acute psychological eye, his ability to get inside family dynamics and deconstruct relationships, to create tension and suspense through the ways we get along with each other.

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