Freedom by Jonathan Franzen


by Jonathan Franzen

Published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux/HarperCollins Canada

562 pages, 2010






A Wolfeish View of Our World

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom begins with a deceptively narrow focus. The life of a single family -- the Berglunds of St. Paul, Minnsesota -- viewed from a distance. The neighborhood they choose. The house they buy and love. The children they grow in the house and how all four Berglunds fit into the neighborhood.

When the topic – the vision – seems nearly exhausted, the field narrows still further. Now we see things from Patty Berglund’s view. But we go back still further and see things in sharp relief and great detail. Her childhood – the things that shaped her. Her college days. The athletics that gave her life meaning. The female stalker who unexpectedly provided her life with the form it will ultimately take. Her distant love of a moody musician. Her actual love of his roommate, Walter Berglund, and the life the couple eventually forge together. In a neighborhood. In a house.

And here, perhaps one third into Freedom, it seems as though it will all either drone on endlessly or all begin again. At this point, Freedom seems to be teetering towards tedious. As much as the precious details are what made Jonathan Franzen’s previous book, The Corrections, soar, early in Freedom, everything seems even more tightly wound: as though we’ll never get out of Patty Berglund’s neurotic grasp. And it’s a big book. When two-thirds of it loom ahead of you and you see no sign of anything but more of the same, it’s easy to gasp a bit, like a fish that can imagine nothing but an endless sea.

Then, so subtly you don’t even feel the shift, the world of Freedom widens until you realize that not only is the scope of the book much broader than you could ever have imagined, it’s an important book, full of big thoughts and things worth thinking about. In that way, the National Book Award-winning The Corrections, as gorgeous as it could occasionally be, feels like a warm-up to Freedom, a book that begins with the tight focus of The Corrections -- a single Midwestern family, their foibles, their triumphs and their disconnects -- and ends up being an embarrassingly accurate portrait of the modern age, our concerns and our challenges.

If there is a defining moment -- a passage in the book where you realize that all is not what it appears to be, it is in a meeting between Walter Berglund -- Patty’s husband -- his best friend and college roommate, Richard Katz, and Walter’s assistant, the beautiful and exotic Bengali Lalitha:

“This is what was keeping me awake at night,” Walter said. “This fragmentation. Because it’s the same problem everywhere. It’s like the internet, or cable TV -- there’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement. There’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli.”

“There’s some pretty good porn on the internet,” Katz said. “Or so I’m told.”

At this point in the story, it is the early part of the new century. The Twin Towers are no more and a new age has emerged. George W. is in the White House and America is at war.

Walter and Patty have left Minnesota for Washington, where Walter has taken a job that has meaning for him, something he wasn’t able to do when the kids where small and he and Patty were building their lives. Now, as head of a conservationist trust to save a bird called the cerulean warbler, Walter and his assistant are buying key tracts of land in West Virginia in order to set up Warbler Park, ostensibly a place where the warblers can stop on their migratory path. Only the billionaire on whose behalf Walter is doing this might have other ideas, because the New York Times and other media outlets seem convinced that the treetops that the warblers need for their migration might be less of concern than the coal deposits deep in the ground beneath those trees. And Walter is torn: is he really helping to save part of the environment, as he’s been led to believe, or is he actually going to be single-handedly responsible for bringing mountaintop coal removal to the unspoiled part of West Virginia where he has, on behalf of the trust, been buying up land?

At the same time, Walter and Patty’s estranged son, Joey, is trying hard to make it on his own. He gets involved with a scheme to buy surplus parts for army vehicles and send them to the front. Deeply into his plan, and at a point where he stands to make a great deal of money, he realizes that the second rate parts he is finding in third world countries might have a devastating effect on the war effort. However, this late in the game blowing the whistle on the defense contractor, who is going along with the plan, will mean that the only one likely to suffer will be Joey. Meanwhile, Patty is working at a health spa, trying to make use of her jock past and sense of her life while Walter and Patty’s old friend Richard has gone from the safety of being a punk rock pariah to the perilous position of alt-country star.

We watch as the various arms of the Berglund family struggle against the backdrop of all of the challenges that have plagued America over the last decade: political confusion and in-fighting, war, even the mortgage crisis. Freedom seems, if anything, even more than the sum of its parts. An important, view-changing novel that forces consideration of opinion and focuses thought. An epic and a triumph. Freedom is at once deeply human and astonishingly thought-provoking. In the end, it provides a Tom Wolfeishly good illustration of our times. | September 2010


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several novels.