A Review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom
“what is most essential to our personhood is not the ends we choose but our capacity to choose them… It makes the individual inviolable only by making him invisible, and calls into question the dignity and autonomy this liberalism seeks above all to secure” (Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, 20, 95)
I believe I’ve read just about every inch of print Jonathan Franzen has published: four novels (The Twenty-Seventh City, Strong Motion, The Corrections, and now Freedom) two collections of essays (How to Be Alone, The Discomfort Zone) and anything I’ve spotted in the New Yorker wit his name on it. There’s a real kinship I feel to his brand of depressive, defeatist but still old-school Marxism- and ZPG-movement-twinged leftism. His sense of characterization is also almost always pitch-perfect.
What’s more, The Corrections is one of the best books I’ve read that was published during my lifetime. I haven’t read all that many books that were, in fact, published during my lifetime, but that should still count for something.
I took several months to read Freedom, mostly because during the academic year, I find it hard to devote the mental energy necessary to read serious fiction. I started reading it in March an finished it last week. This book is not War and Peace – though that novel provides an ongoing subtext for this one – but it does weigh in at just over 500 pages.
It tells the story of the Berglund family, first of Minneapolis, and then Washington, DC. It’s laced with many flashbacks, especially to Patty’s (the mother’s) sixties and seventies upper-middle-class upbringing in Westchester Country, New York, and later her college life in the Twin Cities. Walter, her husband, grew up in the midwest under more humble circumstances, though we don’t get the full picture of that until relatively late in the book. They have two gen-Ychildren, Joey and Jessica. Also hovering throughout the story are Richard Katz, a 70’s-punk-turned-alt-country phenom (his first band was named The Traumatics, his 2000’s resurgence sees him as the frontman of Walnut Surprise), and Walter’s administrative assistant Lalitha, just a little older than Joey and Jessica.
The most compelling part of the book is the long section (titled “Mistakes Were Made”), written from the first-person perspective of Patty, introduced as a project recommended by her therapist in medias res. It takes us through her high school and college years, and, in a very impressive narrative sleight-of-hand, Patty’s story dovetails with what we’ve already learned of her present-day circumstances. The effect (for me anyway) was breathtaking – it captured just perfectly the sense that I often have, that though a long time has passed since I was in high school, it doesn’t really feel like it. The sweep of things accelerates in a way that mimics life, but in a novelistic way, that makes you realize an aspect of life you hadn’t really noticed yet.
As the novel comes into the present day, though, some of its energy flags. The 2000’s were, by all accounts, a fairly awful decade geopolitically, and the novel is at its weakest when it tries to capture a sense of this. Joey gets caught up in Iraq-no-bid-contract corruption; Jessica is preoccupied with drawing distinctions between cell phones, email, text messaging and social media and what they say about the different generations’ perspectives on life, experience, politics etc. (as savage as the portrayal of Jessica’s supposed techno-saavy is, it’s also hilarious and rewarding to read).
Weaving all the characters’ sensibilities together is something like the embodiment of Sandel’s fear about the liberal state – we come to privilege our capacity for choice over and above any particular choices. Each character of the novel spends substantial portions of their life trying to reach beyond those choices, free themselves from them. In a frequent formulation, people find themselves “almost free.” They’re just one relationship away, one childhood trauma away, one relocation/refinancing/repackaging away from their ability to completely direct their choices from on high.
Towards the end of Joey’s section of the book, through a pretty funny sequence of events, he finds himself attempting to locate, within his stool, first using a fork and then his bare hands, a very valuable, sentimental item which he has inadvertently swallowed. Of course this is funny, but it also metaphorically condenses the whole book into one idea – the failure of free-choice based consumption (and therefore consumerism) to provide a remedy for the commitments we have made to others in the past. If that sounds contrived, it’s only because I am not describing it well. Over and over again (I remember a similar thing happening in The Corrections) this central motif plays itself out. You don’t always realize it, but when you stop to consider the totality of the characters’ circumstances, you have something profound.
So this probably isn’t Franzen’s best book, but it’s pretty good.