In my review of Franzen’s previous bestseller, The Corrections, I noted that the story was a thoroughly midwestern one—that is, its character is thoroughly understated and unextraordinary, and yet somehow Franzen’s treatment is surprisingly vicious. It isn’t that the gentle midwestern family hides monsters (as least not in his stories), but that the superficially serene exterior of the atomic midwestern family hides a pathological dysfunction. What makes Franzen’s approach to this dysfunction so unique is that he allows his characters to implode with nary a ripple outside of their clan. It’s simultaneously beautiful and damning.
Freedom is, in many ways, the same story told over again. This time an atomic family in suburban Minnesota disintegrates before our very eyes, beginning (retrospectively) with grandparents and trickling down through the generations, like bad plumbing reaching the floors below. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that, like The Corrections, Freedom concludes with a sort of uneasy armistice that appears to be a “happy ending” until you stop and think about it.
When Freedom came out, the most common criticism I heard about it was Franzen putting words into his characters mouths that they would never, ever say in real life; the implicit criticism is that Franzen’s a pompous ivory-tower academic who writes books divorced from realism and the people they purport to represent. It’s not a small criticism; nor is it wildly off the mark, as Franzen has noted it and done a hat dance around it.
My small hope for literary criticism would be to hear less about orchestras and capturings and more about the erotic and culinary arts. Think of the novel as lover: Let’s stay home tonight and have a great time. Just because you’re touched where you want to be touched, it doesn’t mean you’re cheap; before a book can change you, you have to love it. Or the novelist as the cook who prepares, as a gift to the reader, this many-course meal. It’s not all ice cream, but sauteed broccoli rabe has charms of its own.
I’d recommend reading that entire essay, long though it may be. Franzen in this way is very much like his late friend, David Foster Wallace, feeling viscerally compelled to avoid impenetrable academic speech (e.g. Judith Butler), yet apparently incapable of narratively representing themselves as simply and accessibly as lesser writers. I would argue this is perfectly natural, and there is a direct (asymptotic) relationship between complexity of topic and complexity of narrative and speech.
In critique of Franzen, however, his grist for the mill this time around comes from his decision to make a large part of the book be a “book within a book”, written by one of the characters, but the narrative style never changes. Patty Berglund as narrator is not one iota different from Jonathan Franzen as narrator. I questioned, while reading, the wisdom of such a device, until it became important later on; still, a writer of Franzen’s caliber should have found a way around it.
The Normal and the Transgressive
Walter and Patty Berglund are two liberal middle-class parents in a gentrified St. Paul suburb, raising their two children, Jessica and Joey, engaged in a passive-aggressive feud with their neighbor, Carol Monaghan, whose daughter Connie is sexually involved with Joey. The impression we are very purposely given is that Walter is an unremarkable milquetoast who studiously avoids conflict and aggressive; Patty is a neurotic soccer mom with a tremendous mean streak; Jessica remains largely absent from the novel; Joey, despite everyone’s best efforts to deny it, is the spitting image of his mother.
One of the most interesting parts of the book—but one that is also somewhat predictable—is the extended flashback to Patty and Walter’s youth and college years. Each deals with emotional baggage that I won’t deal with here, but it’s important to note that although Walter and Patty end up married, the path to said marriage was not at all obvious or easy in retrospect. Patty, former athlete, aggressive and lusty, pined for a long time after Walter’s rockstar friend Richard Katz, ignoring Walter’s constant and faithful entreaties for a relationship. Walter, the self-described feminist, the safe choice, whose sexual style could be be described as a “light touch”, was silver medal that Patty finally settled for.
The aggressive/transgressive sex (life, really) that Patty always lusted after remained wrapped up in Richard Katz, with whom the Berglunds kept in contact, and which Patty finally consummated in her middle age, as the entire Berglund family started to unwind.
The motif of transgression unsurprisingly rears up in Joey’s life. Still with Connie, years after their sexual relationship started, he begins to feel trapped in the relationship; Connie, though faithful, obedient, and compliant, doesn’t seem an appropriate match for Joey, who wants himself sow his wild oats. It is, unironically, Connie’s willingness for unorthodox sex that keeps Joey in the relationship, and despite eventual infidelity from both, they end up together in a way that hearkens suspiciously to Walter and Patty’s earlier coupling.
Everything comes to us filtered through (mostly latent, sometimes explicit) anger and depression, a disheartening but somehow realistic motif that colors the novel from its first page to its last. Consider Franzen’s recent article in The New Yorker, largely a transcription of a commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College.
And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).
There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.
There is a latent fear shared by all of the characters of Freedom, it seems, to admit their imperfections and be loved in spite of them. Instead, an obsession with the superficial and an intolerance for emotional honesty dominate, and ultimately destroy, the Berglunds’ lives. The concept of freedom comes up in conversations between characters, though it’s mostly of a superficial, free-market sort of freedom. Franzen has said the title itself refers to the existential freedom given to you by accepting what you are rather than clutching your misleading “freedom” to be whatever you want. Franzen has created what Sam Anderson of New York Magazine calls “a social-realist epic about a depressive, entropic midwestern family being swallowed and digested by the insatiable anaconda of modernity.” But he’s also created a bold statement about what it does and doesn’t mean to love someone or something, and what happens when we forget these very basic ideas.