Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom at 562 pages is a remarkably fast and compelling read. But don’t let the simplicity of the language fool you. He uses the long sweeping lens of the 19th century novel and non-distracting language to deliver a story that explores a big idea. Freedom. The ideals of freedom are after all what underpin the political structure of the United States where the story unfolds and it is in the name of freedom that so many grave misdeeds are exacted both personally and politically.
Franzen’s instinct for telling a great story starts with what the reader can easily relate to and in this case it’s family. Franzen tells us the story of Patty and Walter Berglund and their two children Joey and Jessica. Patty, a housewife and Walter, a morally upright lawyer (and needless to say Democrat) and passionate conservationist start their life together in an old Victorian house just outside of St. Paul’s. Patty, a former college basketball star is a young beautiful woman who devotes herself enthusiastically to her children and community.
But the dysfunction of each of their respective childhoods ultimately sets them on a collision course of dysfunction within their own family. The catalyst is Joey, the handsome son that Patty overly dotes on. Not only does his precocious sexual promiscuity with the neighbour’s girl Connie leave Patty unhinged, but when he decides to move in with Connie’s mother and boyfriend the entire Berglund family, but especially Patty fall apart. You see, the neighbours are Republicans. The personal shame of having your teenage son reject you is one thing, but that he rejects you and goes on to become a Republican is entirely another. Patty suffers terribly and begins to drink and obsess about Walter’s best friend from college Richard Katz, a man who is Walter’s opposite in most ways.
When the Berglunds leave for Washington where Walter accepts a post with a land conversancy group, Franzen begins to explore the outer politcal structure of what freedom means.
For Walter, the world is fast-tracking to environmental disaster leading him to make some crazy decisions in the name of environmentalism. Patty is free to do however she chooses and instead chooses nothing leaving her miserable. For Joey, freedom is making fast money off dubious contracts from the war in Iraq. For the American government it’s free to protect ‘freedom’ by ruthlessly invading a country for geopolitical reasons unrelated to freedom.
The happiest characters are Lalitha, Walter’s assistant, ultimately Joey and the symbol of birds that are very much a part of the personal and political narrative of this book.
In the end you really have to ask yourself what happiness is. But as a reader from the outside Lalitha certainly seems on balance to be ‘happy’. And who is she? She is someone who has well-intended purpose and acts on it and she has love. And Joey…while Joey gets off to a rough start he is an interesting character because he has strong instincts. As long as he makes decisions in reaction to things outside of himself then he sets himself on a collision course with unhappiness. But when he truly follows his heart the course of his life begins to change.
And birds. There’s the expression “We’re free as birds”. And there’s the eagle as the symbol of American strength and freedom. But are birds really free? Are they free of work, purpose and intention? They can’t be or they wouldn’t survive.
So I look at these three characters and I believe that what Franzen wants the reader to see is that freedom starts with the personal. That freedom starts with purpose, intention, instinct and truth. And that if we act on these it won’t be so easy to get lost in the maze of reaction and thoughtlessness.
If you aren’t inspired to read this book for all the reasons above then you might consider reading it for Franzen’s fine ear for dialogue. This book has some excruciatingly funny moments in it where I was able to laugh out loud, very hard. I think I will put the Corrections on my list for next year. Good read. Thanks Jonathan for getting through your writing block.