In some ways, the content of Freedom came as a surprise to me. I knew, between The Discomfort Zone and magazine interviews, that Jonathan Franzen was big into bird watching. I also knew that he was not so into TVs, consumerism, and all that jazz, from the same interviews, his novels, and the essays of How to Be Alone. But I wasn’t prepared for a novel so overtly political, or so overtly post-9/11. (I should say superficially, rather than overtly, but I’ll get to that below.) And forcing the characters, despite their sometimes radical leanings, to address the world almost entirely in contemporary American Democrat vs. Republican terms, made for a frustrating reading experience that seemed more concerned with current affairs than any wider moral issues. And as Mark Athitakis describes on his blog, “it’s a novel with that persistent, irritating drumbeat in the background—technological consumerism is an infernal machine”—and it is irritating.
But back to that “superficially” above. Much of the plot may revolve around politics, especially as a means to keep the action rolling along, but the heart of the novel is really in the home. This, along with many other features of the plot, makes the novel seem, as Sam Anderson notes in New York magazine, “from a distance” much like The Corrections. His rundown of the parallels is about what I came up with:
Freedom is a close cousin to The Corrections: a social-realist epic about a depressive, entropic midwestern family being swallowed and digested by the insatiable anaconda of modernity. The Corrections told the story of the Lamberts—Arthur and Enid and their three children. Freedom tells the story of the Berglunds—Walter and Patty and their two children. Instead of St. Jude (a proxy for St. Louis) we have St. Paul. Instead of a dubious get-rich-quick scheme exploiting the post-Soviet chaos in Lithuania, we have a dubious get-rich-quick scheme exploiting the war in Iraq. Like its predecessor, Freedom is heavy on psychology and extramarital affairs and earnest speechifying (capitalism, overpopulation, Israel). It is, in other words, classic Precambrian Franzen: a ready-made literary fossil. It’s hard not to be at least a little preemptively bored.
“Precambrian Franzen” in the sense that all Franzen is Precambrian, according to the argument that the social realist novel is dead (hence my irritation above, I suppose) and that this kind of domestic fiction has lost its place in the literary world and been relegated to chick-lit status (when written by women). I haven’t got much comment on that whole debate, as these days I don’t feel I know much about the contemporary American novel. But anyway.
As Anderson notes, what makes Freedom ultimately different from The Corrections is that the novels are “populated by different people”—an important distinction in Franzenworld, where characterization is extremely strong and the decades spent telling the story of the Berglund family backwards and forwards through time, with an all but omniscient narrator shadowing each character and two long sections written by the family matriarch herself, make for very precise and three-dimensional people walking around the novel. And I don’t mean three-dimensional in the sense of “round” vs. “flat,” but in the sense that they actually seem like humans that could get up and walk away—again, the words of Anderson are better than mine: Franzen’s skill “trick[s] us into beliving that a text-generated set of neural patterns, a purely abstract mind-event, is in fact a tangible human being that we can love, pity, hate, admire, and possibly even run into someday at the grocery store.” And the ages of both main generations of the Berglunds (both parents and children are younger, in real terms as well as within the narrative, than the Lamberts) happened to be more personally interesting to me.
It is this dense rendering of character—to paraphrase Anderson one last time—that gave such strength to The Corrections as well. Yes, the overarching ideas of modernity and the human family, yes. But nine years later, what do I remember more clearly than the pain of Gary and the awful, almost evil frustrations of dealing with his wife? The complete picture of Denise, possibly the weakest of the Lambert siblings, turning into a serious chef? Or Chip, the sheep so black and sheepish he finds himself accidentally “forced” to steal super-expensive salmon from a super-expensive boutique market by stuffing it down his shirt? Or was it his pants? Either way.
In Freedom it is not any sort of political message that comes out on top, but an endless string of interpersonal ones that are from beginning to end more important. The politics of the novel is dominated in its origins by family: Walter becomes the way he does about nature conservancy because of his depressed father and his marital problems; Joey turns against the family and becomes Republican because his rebellion against his parents pushed him into the arms of Republican-leaning neighbors; Patty even comes to understand late in life that her own mother was somewhat driven into politics to get away from her family, rather than the reverse.
The title of “Mistakes Were Made,” Patty’s therapy-induced autobiography, may be a dig at political events, and plenty such “mistakes were made” in the novel as well—Walter’s meltdown and Joey’s deal with the military-industrial devil, for example. But her autobiography itself is dominated by mistakes of a very different sort: mistakes with her parents and siblings, mistakes dealing with her rape, mistakes with her college friends, mistakes with men, mistakes with her children.
And those kinds of mistakes, on the part of everyone—because we all make them—are more intense psychologically than any of the environmentalism or anti-populism or anything about the Iraq War. Franzen paints the inside of a relationship so thickly and also so starkly that it’s hard not to be afraid of whatever parallels there may be to the reader’s life; most of these people are really unhappy and you do not want to do whatever they did to get here.
Politics can get you a few things—a well-attended funeral, immunity from prosecution, even an ultra-lucrative military contract—but it will also take you away from your family, sour your personal relationships, and even get you killed. By the last section of the book, “Canterbridge Estates Lake,” Walter has left family life almost entirely behind to reach his fullest crank potential. Echoing an earlier time in the novel when Patty lost it over Joey and sociopathically slashed the neighbor’s tires, he traps the neighbor’s bird-hunting pet cat and brings it to an animal shelter hours away to be euthanized. But family can bring him back from the brink of that level of misanthropy and dysfunction, smooth over relations with other humans, and make it possible for Walter to live in society again.
Speaking of family, Walter’s grandfather is the one who immigrated to America, from Sweden. As the narrator explains,
[h]e became another data point in the American experiment of self-government, an experiment statistically skewed from the outset, because it wasn’t the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn’t get along well with others.
It may sound like something a crank would say, but in Franzenworld it is true. No one “gets along well with others” in the larger sense, but sometimes certain people get along with certain other people, or force themselves to, because they have to, for the family or the “team.” To perhaps bring further home that chick lit point above, many of those peacemakers are women: Patty, Jessica, Lalitha, Connie, Dorothy. But men unquestionably have a role as well, such as in Joey’s little incident with his wedding ring and his larger decision to truly be with Connie, or Walter, when he negates his anti-overpopulation principles once with Patty and then wishes to again later with Lalitha. For all his commitment to politics and the vehemence he feels for his cause, he still literally “couldn’t stop imagining making Lalitha big with child. It was at the root of all their fucking, it was the meaning encoded in how beautiful he found her body.”
So, so much for changing hearts and minds, then, and we are what we are? Mistakes were made, and will be made, and we will forgive each other because we must and get along with each other just as far as we must because we must? There is a place in this world for cranks and angry political causes but ultimately life is much quieter than that, though still as intense? Social realism and domestic fiction are not at all dead? Perhaps. That is part of what I will leave with, at least. There’s a lot, lot more though, and I hardly need to note that it’s all carried off in Franzen’s super-assured sentences, which style, I think, may even have improved since the corrections, gotten a bit more mature.