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Franzen’s Freedom might be as good as Oprah thinks

December 21, 2010

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom has been hailed as the next Great American Novel.

If you believe, as my fiction-writing professor this past quarter did, that the title of a story is the most integral part of any story, then the title of Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed Freedom is more descriptive than most.* Freedom is the story of the rapidly dissolving marriage of Patty and Walter Berglund, but it is just as much the story of their children, Joey and Jessica, and Richard Katz, the Jeff Tweedy-esque rockstar who stands in the way of the Berglunds’ domestic paradise.

*Important Things That Don’t Matter is still the best title I’ve seen in quite some time, by the way — the kind of title that made me not only pick a book up, but turn it over and not mind paying $2 for it.

The reason Freedom is being praised by people from Oprah Winfrey to established literary critics, however, is that Franzen has captured the stunted growth of an entire generation and the effect that living constantly in fear of the next challenge, the next catastrophe, could have on American life.

Early in the novel, the Berglunds’ neighbors say that the couple “never learned how to live,” as Patty went straight from a collegiate basketball career to parenthood and Walter went from earning a law degree at the University of Minnesota to working a corporate job he never wanted at 3M to support the family that Patty wanted.

Patty, however, has been harboring a not-so-secret flame for Richard Katz, Walter’s best friend, since Katz* dated the girl who had a stalkerish relationship with Patty at college.**

*I only refer to him as Katz because Franzen does throughout the novel even as he calls the Berglunds and every single member of their extended family by their first names. This may have been done for logistic reasons, but it firmly establishes that Katz’s primary role in the story is as the accessory to a marriage.

**Franzen does a pretty good job of simultaneously tying in and mocking the somewhat pretentious music culture created by NPR and college radio stations, with the near-climax of the novel featuring Walter and Katz attending a Bright Eyes Concert in Washington, D.C. and another scene featuring a fanboy doing an interview with Katz, who kind of wants to have sex with the boy’s mother and really wants to finish building their deck.

Patty finally acts on her feelings for Katz long into her marriage with Richard at the lake house that Walter’s mother left him. Franzen allows Patty to tell us about this in her own, often brutally honest words as part of a therapy “homework assignment” to help treat clinical depression brought on by years of raising two children, one of whom leaves his childhood house to move in next door with his girlfriend and the other who makes it very clear that she resents her mother’s unhappiness.

Walter, for his part, is blissfully unaware of his wife’s actions, busily planning an initiative that will save a rare species of songbird despite destroying the ecology of an entire region of West Virginia and lining the pockets of his corporate backers with mountain top removal-stained money. Walter moves the family, meaning Patty and himself, to Georgetown, where Lalitha, his assistant on the project, lives in the attic of their mansion.

Lalitha is smitten with Walter, but is as in love with his ability to believe in a cause — something that Patty never quite understood — as much as she is with the man himself. At her suggestion, Katz is brought to Washington to collaborate on the project to save the rare songbird, hopefully using newfound powers of NPR-deemed celebrity to set up a Woodstock-esque event in the West Virginia mountains. That idea brings Walter, Patty, Katz, and Lalitha together and creates a potent formula for the explosion of a marriage.

Jonathan Franzen has captured the modern American moment better than most other writers who have had a crack at it.

The large cast of characters is adeptly handled by Franzer, who makes most of them seem important to the story and to the Berglunds’ understanding of themselves and of each other, from the next door neighbors who will becomes the Berglunds’ in-laws to Patty’s family in New York, which never quite grew out of having the world handed to it on a silver platter.* By allowing the characters to react to each other naturally — to hate the parts of each other that the reader can’t help but also dislike and allow them to find the same bright spots that most people can’t help but seek out in the people who are important to them — Franzen shows that even the most awkward connection can spark with unexpected warmth.

*Perhaps the most entertaining story belongs the Berglunds’ youngest child, Joey, who rebels against his family by becoming a dreaded Republican and developing interest in his lapsed Jewish heritage while attending the University of Virginia and secretly marrying the girl next door, whose family he moved in with during his senior year of high school.

Freedom is about topics as varied as the War in Iraq, the Bush era, overpopulation, the evils of oil, teenaged sex, corrupt military contractors, Judaism, music, family, teenage rebellion, Baby Boomers, and many more. By allowing the plot to serve as his book’s main driver, however, Franzen manages to prevent any one of his devices from overpowering the family saga that he is trying to tell.

Ultimately, Freedom is astonishingly clear in its message: All of us possess the freedom to love, the freedom to break someone’s heart, the freedom to screw everything up royally, the freedom to forgive, and the freedom to essentially do whatever we want at any given time. Others, however, are free to have their own prerogatives, and it doesn’t particularly matter if theirs completely jive with ours because they are going to be acted on whether they do or not.

Most importantly of all, though, Freedom is about the capability and the necessity of learning how to live, particularly in an era where the world’s many complications and imagined issues mean that being only idealistic or only pragmatic will result in nothing but misery.

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