What if, long after the time when you could reasonably consider yourself young, you came to discover that you had lived the wrong kind of life? That you had married the wrong person, worked at the wrong job, or raised your kids the wrong way? It’s probably fair to say that this realization would constitute a kind of living nightmare.
And yet, if freedom exists and we are all ultimately responsible for the choices we make, there is a very realistic chance that such a nightmare could become real. After all, we can’t expect every free person to make all the right decisions all of the time. What happens when free individuals make the wrong choices?
This is the question Jonathan Franzen explores in his new novel, Freedom, his long-awaited follow-up to The Corrections. Like that novel, this one is about a Midwestern family that’s trying to flee the Midwest. When we are introduced to the Berglunds—Walter and Patty—they are a Rockwellesque family living in suburban St. Paul. They are early pioneers in the gentrification process, and a quiet mix of acceptable liberalism (Walter’s an environmentalist who works for the Nature Conservancy) and old-fashioned family values (rather than working, Patty stays home and bakes cookies for the neighborhood).
But, like all Rockwellian veneers, there are many things beneath the surface, and they grow to undermine the family’s suburban splendor. Joey, one of the Berglunds’ perfect children, begins to terrorize his parents with placid rebellion, and this rebellion gradually pulls at the seams of their marriage. Patty, a former college athlete, viewed her family and her house and her life as primarily an extension of the competition she always thrived on while growing up. Meanwhile, Walter’s devotion to Patty is tinged with the worry that he was always his wife’s second choice; he is also concerned that his suburban life represents a betrayal of his political and environmental ideals. Inevitably, these anxieties over whether they’ve chosen the right kind of life manifest themselves in Walter and Patty’s marriage. At the end of the novel’s opening chapter, one of the Berglunds’ neighbors speculates: “I don’t think they’ve figured out yet how to live.”
And so the Berglunds try something different: The book follows them as they move to Washington, D.C. Walter gets a new job, the kids go off to college, and Patty has an affair with Walter’s best friend. Needless to say, this does not make things better. Freedom is a novel about people who are trying to correct mistakes of their past, but who aren’t prepared for the choices they have to make about the future.
In all the discussion of the book, and the backlash to the book, and the discussion of the backlash to the book, there seems to be a central question: Why do Franzen’s novels get so much attention? The Corrections was famously picked by Oprah for her book club, and Freedom was declared the “novel of the century” with nine decades left to go. What is it about Franzen that garners this kind of attention and acclaim?
Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult were slightly onto something (in a bitter, unfairly reductive way) in attributing a lot of Franzen’s appeal to race and gender, but it’s really more about class. Like The Corrections, Freedom centers on a certain swath of the American middle class—the type of Americans that worry about such “contemporary questions” as the ones Franzen lists on the novel’s second page:
“Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did your 240 sometimes not go into overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button? Was it better to offer panhandlers food, or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecendently confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning? Had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer? What about a good Volvo mechanic? Did your 240 have that problem with the sticky parking-brake cable? And that enigmatically labeled dashboard switch that made such a satisfying Swedish click but seemed not to be to anything: what WAS that?”
And while this class of American may not be the majority, it is certainly the cultural authority. It is this class that politicians most blatantly pander to, that have the disposable income to buy products advertised on TV, that read national magazines and newspapers, that watch critically lauded programming on basic and premium cable, etc. They are the elusive “middle class” that everyone is always discussing.
The other primary reason for the attention Franzen gets is that he is so damn good at representing this sub-section of America. Much of the novel takes place in 2004, and the details with which the author recounts the last decade are bound to resonate with most readers. At times—like in the above quoted litany of questions—Franzen’s depiction verges into satire, but overall the portrait is too realistic to be solely satirical. The novel is quick to poke fun at the excesses of suburban culture—like the war that erupts on the Berglunds’ block when their neighbor begins a process of noisy construction—but it only rarely exaggerates these foibles unfairly.
This realism allows the Berglunds to function as a representative family, and the novel more generally to function as a tale of life in America over the last decade. In the author video that Franzen released for the book, he talks about what a novel is “supposed to do”: “It’s supposed to find ways to connect the largest possible social picture with the most intimate, personal, difficult-to-express human stories.” In that respect, Freedom is a resounding success.
Walter Berglund, for example, comes to represent an archetype of the Midwestern middle class, while also standing in for alienated environmental idealism. He’s a hard-working and selfless father who struggles to discipline his son; he has some long-held, radical political beliefs that he is forced to compromise in one way or another. But in addition to standing in for these generic descriptors, Walter is also a fully-realized character. It’s as if Franzen has taken an archetype that everyone is familiar with and colored in the outline to make it appear new again.
Franzen achieves this effect in part through a sprawling and interconnected narrative, in which different parts of the story are told from the perspective of each of the novel’s four main characters: Walter, Patty, their son Joey, and Walter’s best friend Richard Katz. As a result, we are introduced to every character first through the eyes of another, so that he or she first appears as an impression made on another. Then we get a gradually more intimate depiction of that character, until finally we see things from his or her perspective.
The other effect of this technique is that the novel’s depiction of a character can be utterly scathing at one point, and then fully sympathetic. Some critics have claimed that Franzen seems to have disdain for his characters, and there are certainly passages in which that disdain is palpable. The problem with that charge, though, is that these passages are balanced out by depictions of his characters trying desperately to do the right thing. It is a testament to Franzen as a writer that he can turn his characters into jokes—such as when Joey retires to the Handicapped bathroom at his college library to masturbate, using the pictures from a nineteenth-century German sexual-anatomy atlas to “dignify” the process—only to make them that much more human pages later.
Indeed, this actually underscores the theme of the novel: that our freedom necessarily entails huge mistakes. Nobody is good or upstanding or decent or loyal or cool or respectable or dignified all of the time, and not even every time that matters. People are occasionally going to seem phony to their neighbors, or petulant to their friends, or cruel to their loved ones. Indeed, the title of Patty’s autobiography (which she writes at the behest of a psychiatrist and, in an instance of Franzen getting perhaps too cute, in the third-person) is “Mistakes Were Made.” And where do these mistakes come from?
“By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.”
This apparent paradox—that the freedom we cherish so much as individuals and work so hard to maximize, actually distresses us—is not new. At the very least, it has been around since Sartre. But just as Franzen breathes life into standard character-types, he infuses broad philosophical questions with vividness and humanity. The greatest accomplishment of Franzen’s new novel is the way it illustrates that even after we confirm that we’ve made terrible, horrible, life-altering mistakes, our lives are not over or doomed irreparably. The Berglunds are forced to come to grips with the choices they’ve made, but they are also forced to continue making choices, which can either exacerbate or palliate the problems of their lives. Freedom makes the Berglunds suffer, but it also gives them a chance to redeem themselves.
Like Franzen’s last novel, Freedom is a brilliant, funny, and vivid portrait that is simultaneously sympathetic and critical of its characters. It is also a novel that is refreshingly unafraid to deal explicitly with the Big Ideas of the time, while making sure to ground them in everyday, recognizable characters and events. In other words, it is a novel worthy of attention and discussion.