Franzen’s “Freedom” is a Towering Achievement

It almost seems bizarre to me that, in today’s less-than-literarily-keen age, in a society that has entire sections of major book retailers dedicated to Paranormal Teen Romances, when Lady Gaga is our most inspired entertainer and the Transformer film series has earned enough money to purchase a small African nation, any book-savvy person can declare a modern work of fiction as ambitious and thought-provoking as Jonathan Franzen’s newest novel, Freedom, “overrated.” Yet, here we are, unashamedly pouring our money into the Twilight funnel and putting James Patterson on the New York Times bestseller list for the 108th straight novel while the inevitable backlash of Franzen’s enormous critical success has begun to flood online forums, blogs, and amazon.com reviews. (Both of Franzen’s two newest works, the national book award-winning The Corrections and Freedom, have lower user ratings than any of the Swedish Millennium Trilogy, Stieg Larsson’s immensely popular thriller series, which was published after Larsson’s death.) I’ll admit I’m usually the first one to declare something overrated, as I usually do at every Oscar telecast and every time I leave the movie theater, but if there is any work of art in any medium that deserves all of its praise, it is, without a doubt, Freedom.

Almost a decade ago, Franzen rose above the ranks of other ambitious postmodern writers to temporarily become America’s literary obsession.  The Corrections is a work of literature whose hyperbolic narration serves as commentary on the selfish navel-gazing so many of us are prone to. I found most of its 576 pages to be full of sharp-social satire skewering both right and left-leaning Americans, city-dwelling elitists, our ever-growing reliance on technology, sexuality, and suburban purgatory. Any of these targets would make for fine satire in the hands of a good novelist but Franzen, perhaps a great novelist, manages to peel away the thick layers of paint in which we coat our flaws in vain attempts to conceal the truth and has turned navel-gazing and self-righteousness into a bitter (and hilarious) art. He turned tragedy into farce.

But Freedom makes The Corrections look like the debut novel of some aspiring grad-student. The sometimes wordy rambling sections of The Corrections in which the author seems unable to separate himself from his characters are mostly absent from Freedom. Some extended moments in Franzen’s last novel moved a little too slowly and used far more words than necessary, becoming self-indulgent. But the wordiness and smug cynicism were accepted as part of the ironic post-modern commentary on the current state of American fiction. Franzen seemed to be ripping writers who wanted to flaunt their gargantuan vocabularies but, in all of his ambitious idealism, Franzen fell into the habit of doing exactly what he was mocking. And we forgave him for it. This was a tremendous achievement for American literature, especially considering the slop being turned out by most other writers and its flaws were considered a fair price to pay for a novel that dared to be great.

No such forgiveness is necessary when reading Freedom. Franzen has wisely adopted a new writing style that is much closer in tone and scope to that of the great Russian novelists of the 19th century. (Fittingly, Tolstoy’s War and Pear is referenced several times throughout the text, both by name and in more subtle ways.) The other works referenced throughout the novel are mostly various icons of “low art,” such as Bob Dylan and Patti Smith and “Married With Children” and so on, with War and Peace serving as the lone work of high-brow literature referenced, commentating on the current lack of intellectualism in America. In fact the only person throughout the novel we see actively reading and pursuing knowledge is the would-be then suddenly has-been sometimes drug-using rocker, Richard Katz, protagonist Walter Berglund’s college roommate. Franzen has not dumbed down his writing but rather chosen to make it more accessible to reflect the characters’ speech. The vocabulary is much more agreeable and readers will no longer need to go to dictionary.com to figure out what words such as “gerontocratic” or “diurnality” mean. (My computer doesn’t even know what either of those words mean and is offering no suggestions for what I should change them to.)The tone of the work is conversational and deceptively free-indirect as the character’s thoughts stealthily seep into the narration. All of the biases and emotions of whatever character is the focus of whatever particular chapter influence the supposedly omniscient narration and gently tug you into certain directions so you begin to sympathize with said character, only to hear another character’s views on similar subjects later. It seems like simple and uninspiring easy writing, but it’s actually quite complicated when you take the time to think about it, something Franzen trusts his readers will actually do.

This free-indirect style is particularly effective in the novel’s first two-hundred pages. Franzen doesn’t wait more than forty pages before he begins to break your heart when he introduces Patty Berglund’s sort of autobiography that she is writing at her therapist’s suggestion. Patty details the date-rape she experienced when she was in high school which may or may not be the cause of the many sexual and mental issues that plague her middle-age years. The beginning of Patty’s narration, titled “Agreeable,” another one of Franzen’s attacks on political hypocrisy, details Patty’s date rape, or the “terrible thing that happened” to her.  The boy who rapes Patty, a family friend with very powerful parents, goes virtually unpunished because, as her parents casually explain to her (after questioning the reliability of her story, as if she made up the whole thing), they cannot pursue charges against the boy who “allegedly” raped her since his parents are political friends of her parents. The dialogue they exchange is full of carefully chosen words, her parents sure to not say anything that may come back to harm them (or their careers), Patty just desperate to put the whole thing behind her. No one wants to say the wrong thing. When politics mean more than family, Franzen seems to be saying, this is what happens.

And when Patty acts inappropriately later on in life and lies or cheats or takes advantage of her whipped husband, Walter, we think back to the “terrible thing”, to her misidentify, to those certain moments of uncertainty and impulsive self-destruction and we almost empathize with her, but not quite. When Patty cheats on Walter with Richard, who pops up throughout the story frequently, slithering in and out of the other protagonists’ lives, refusing to go away, like an addiction you just can’t kick, we want to yell at her and want to see her suffer. But Franzen’s characters are like real people and they change, and they surprise us, and they have the capacity to do good things. It is Richard, surprisingly—the womanizer who deceivingly has a heart and cares more for his former roommate than he lets on— who tells Patty they cannot continue their adulterous relationship. He refuses to hurt his friend. And it is Richard who tells Patty to drink less and clean up her life. And it is Richard who agrees to help Walter with his crazy environmentalist plan to save cerulean warblers. And it is Richard who reenters Patty’s life to continue relations with her long after he told her they could not continue. And so on. Characters are constantly deceiving each other as well as the reader and proving time and time again how selfish—then selfless—then selfish again—they can be.

Both sides of the political spectrum are skewered, although the right gets hit a bit harder, especially the Bush administration, but Franzen boldly characterizes every ideology one is likely to find in suburbia. Liberals cannot keep control of their children because they are too nice and too lenient and not strict enough and just want to save the animals when they cannot even save their own families. Conservatives have bumper stickers that say I’m white and I vote and chop down trees with chainsaws and talk about stretching the truth so they can kill all the terrorists responsible for 9/11, etc. Everyone contradicts their own political beliefs at some point in the novel. No one is entirely likable and yet no one is despicable, kind of like people in real life.

When every character has a full story to be heard and everyone has motivations and dreams they follow and obstacles they overcome, it’s really hard to condemn or justify anyone’s actions in Freedom. We see the good and not-so-good in everyone and yet we judge them all anyway. We want to think we’re better than Patty or Walter or their rebellious son, Joey, because we’re afraid we’re just like them. If you read Freedom and you find yourself frustrated with Franzen’s characters or the situations that unfold or if you decide at the end you hate everyone in this door-stop of a book, then ask yourself: have I ever lied to a parent or child? Have I ever cheated or been unfaithful? Have I ever taken advantage of someone or something? Have I ever put power or politics before my family? Am I this selfish? Then see that Franzen, influenced by Mann and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, has created a towering literary achievement that is a frightening (and funny) portrait of the culture we have created for ourselves.

Greg Cwik, Editor

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