Fair Or Not, 'Freedom' Has Earned Its Accolades

Freedom
Freedom: A Novel
By Jonathan Franzen
Hardcover, 576 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $28

Read An Excerpt

Jonathan Franzen is in trouble again. You'll recall that back in 2001, Franzen made the misstep of expressing authorly ambivalence about the fact that his novel, The Corrections, might be mistaken for a "women's only" read since it had been chosen for Oprah's on-air book club. Soon enough, Oprah booted The Corrections off her syllabus and Franzen got the reputation in some circles of being a snoot.

Now all the hullabaloo over Franzen's long-awaited new novel, Freedom, is generating something of a feminist backlash. Why all this adulatory attention, critics ask, for Franzen's latest domestic drama about marriage and family? So many terrific contemporary female novelists cover the same terrain, yet their work receives a fraction of the highbrow fanfare that greets Franzen. It's like how men still get praised for doing housework and taking care of their own kids: Any male involvement in the domestic realm still merits applause.

All true. And, yet, even though Franzen gets more praise for doing what many fine female writers do "backwards and in heels," in the case of the blandly titled Freedom, it's well deserved. I heretically think Freedom is even more powerful than The Corrections, sections of which I found contrived. Freedom is looser and more revelatory and ambitious. It's the novel — by a man — along with novels by women like Allegra Goodman, Lionel Shriver, and the incandescent Sue Miller, that I'd elect to put in a time capsule to give a sense of the texture of middle-class American life to future readers. And, I sincerely hope that last phrase is not an oxymoron.

The husband and wife at the center of scrutiny in Freedom are Walter and Patty Berglund, who meet in college in the '70s. We know that Walter is in for a rough time when we're told at the outset that his "most salient quality, besides his love of Patty, was his niceness." Patty, in the opening paragraphs of the novel, is the reigning stay-at-home mom of her gentrified neighborhood of St. Paul, Minn. — a cooking and crafting queen. But a crack in Patty's chipper progressive Democratic veneer soon surfaces when we learn she's slashed the tires of a noisy Republican lout who lives next door.

Soon, all hell breaks loose as the Berglunds' adored teenage son, Joey, literally defects over the fence to live with the neighbor's vacant and sexually voracious daughter. Even worse, Joey will go on to work for shady civilian contractors supplying defective truck parts to the American forces in Iraq. And, then there's Walter's best friend from college, Richard Katz, an aging bad boy and lead singer of an indie band called The Traumatics. Richard turns up erratically in the Berglunds' life and, simply by his very existence, reminds Patty that, although she married Walter, she was only, at best, "somewhat more than sort of into him."

The unspooling of the Berglunds' marriage as they become more and more their destined selves is chronicled through a variety of perspectives, including a brutal, but often hilarious therapeutic memoir that Patty writes, titled "Mistakes Were Made." One of the great pleasures of reading Franzen's work is savoring how he turns personalities this way and that, so, for instance, from one angle Patty is a victim; from another she's a shrewish and controlling depressive. And, all interpretations are somewhat true. Even Richard, who could so easily have devolved into a rock'n'roll stereotype, is dense and surprising. Because he's a cynic, Richard is also the source of some of the sharpest takes on his friends and the world they live in. Midway through the novel, Richard achieves midlevel fame. Here are his thoughts about a young girl who won't stop bothering him:

She was like a walking advertisement of the late-model parenting she'd received: You have permission to ask for things! ... Your offerings, if you're bold enough to make them, will be welcomed by the world! ... [Richard] wondered if he'd been this tiring himself at eighteen, or whether, as it now seemed to him, his anger at the world — his perception of the world as a hostile adversary worthy of his anger — had made him more interesting than these young paragons of self-esteem.

There's not one throwaway scene in Freedom and, yet, for all that effort, nothing feels overwritten or false. Like The Corrections, Freedom celebrates and extends the possibilities of the good old realist novel — at a time when realism is out of fashion, even in autobiography. Franzen makes us skeptical post-moderns believe again, if only for a space, that literature really can and should hold a mirror up to the world.

Excerpt: 'Freedom'

Freedom
Freedom: A Novel
By Jonathan Franzen
Hardcover, 576 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $28

The news about Walter Berglund wasn't picked up locally-he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now-but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times. According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation's capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty reconciling the quotes about him in the Times ("arrogant," "high-handed," "ethically compromised") with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow; it seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.

Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill-the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen on hard times three decades earlier. They paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for ten years renovating it. Early on, some very determined person torched their garage and twice broke into their car before they got the garage rebuilt. Sunburned bikers descended on the vacant lot across the alley to drink Schlitz and grill knockwurst and rev engines at small hours until Patty went outside in sweatclothes and said, "Hey, you guys, you know what?" Patty frightened nobody, but she'd been a standout athlete in high school and college and possessed a jock sort of fearlessness. From her first day in the neighborhood, she was helplessly conspicuous. Tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles and barfed-upon old snow, she might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.

In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else's children's sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it. There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did your 240 sometimes not go into overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button? Was it better to offer panhandlers food, or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning? Had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer? What about a good Volvo mechanic? Did your 240 have that problem with the sticky parking-brake cable? And that enigmatically labeled dashboard switch that made such a satisfying Swedish click but seemed not to be connected to anything: what was that?

For all queries, Patty Berglund was a resource, a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee. She was one of the few stay-at-home moms in Ramsey Hill and was famously averse to speaking well of herself or ill of anybody else. She said she expected to be "beheaded" someday by one of the windows whose sash chains she'd replaced. Her children were "probably" dying of trichinosis from pork she'd undercooked. She wondered if her "addiction" to paint-stripper fumes might be related to her "never" reading books anymore. She confided that she'd been "forbidden" to fertilize Walter's flowers after what had happened "last time." There were people with whom her style of self-deprecation didn't sit well-who detected a kind of condescension in it, as if Patty, in exaggerating her own minor defects, were too obviously trying to spare the feelings of less accomplished homemakers. But most people found her humility sincere or at least amusing, and it was in any case hard to resist a woman whom your own children liked so much and who remembered not only their birthdays but yours, too, and came to your back door with a plate of cookies or a card or some lilies of the valley in a little thrift-store vase that she told you not to bother returning.

It was known that Patty had grown up back East, in a suburb of New York City, and had received one of the first women's full scholarships to play basketball at Minnesota, where, in her sophomore year, according to a plaque on the wall of Walter's home office, she'd made second-team all-American. One strange thing about Patty, given her strong family orientation, was that she had no discernible connection to her roots. Whole seasons passed without her setting foot outside St. Paul, and it wasn't clear that anybody from the East, not even her parents, had ever come out to visit. If you inquired point-blank about the parents, she would answer that the two of them did a lot of good things for a lot of people, her dad had a law practice in White Plains, her mom was a politician, yeah, a New York State assemblywoman. Then she would nod emphatically and say, "Yeah, so, that's what they do," as if the topic had been exhausted.

A game could be made of trying to get Patty to agree that somebody's behavior was "bad." When she was told that Seth and Merrie Paulsen were throwing a big Halloween party for their twins and had deliberately invited every child on the block except Connie Monaghan, Patty would only say that this was very "weird." The next time she saw the Paulsens in the street, they explained that they had tried all summer to get Connie Monaghan's mother, Carol, to stop flicking cigarette butts from her bedroom window down into their twins' little wading pool. "That is really weird," Patty agreed, shaking her head, "but, you know, it's not Connie's fault." The Paulsens, however, refused to be satisfied with "weird." They wanted sociopathic, they wanted passive-aggressive, they wanted bad. They needed Patty to select one of these epithets and join them in applying it to Carol Monaghan, but Patty was incapable of going past "weird," and the Paulsens in turn refused to add Connie to their invite list. Patty was angry enough about this injustice to take her own kids, plus Connie and a school friend, out to a pumpkin farm and a hayride on the afternoon of the party, but the worst she would say aloud about the Paulsens was that their meanness to a seven-year-old girl was very weird.

Excerpted from Freedom: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen. Copyright 2010 by Jonathan Franzen. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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