Franzen Frenzy: Reading Beyond The 'Freedom' Hype

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

Two of the most frequently repeated words in Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's much-anticipated fourth novel, are "freedom" and "mistake," and they're curiously linked. For Franzen's characters, freedom means, in part, the liberty to make mistakes — mistakes that are examined, dissected minutely, and, occasionally, corrected.

Chances are, you've encountered some of the hype surrounding Franzen's first novel since his wildly acclaimed National Book Award winner, The Corrections. Is Freedom all it's cracked up to be — to wit, the Great American Novel hailed in a recent Time magazine cover story? Reading it, I ran hot and cold, and had to put aside my inflated expectations as well as Franzen's sometimes glaring ambition, which strains at parallels with the unparalleled War and Peace. That said, in the end, admiration won out.

Like The Corrections, Freedom zeroes in on the vicissitudes of an unhappy, white, middle-American family to highlight problems in American culture today. At once domestic and political, it both narrowly focuses on a lopsided love triangle — between Patty and Walter Berglund and Walter's lifelong competitor/best friend, alt-rock star Richard Katz —  and more broadly examines the stresses of our post-9/11 world.

Franzen enriches a classic morality tale — insecure young woman marries kind, devoted guy but remains chronically, destructively attracted to his flashier, unreliable, womanizing buddy — with dizzyingly accomplished nonlinear complexity. He bores deeper and deeper into his characters, and as he reveals various moral lapses — ranging from betrayals of trust to complicity with big coal companies and dubious military contractors — personal, political, environmental and global issues become intricately, impressively commingled.

Jonathan Franzen i i

Jonathan Franzen is also the author of The Corrections: A Novel, and The Discomfort Zone, a memoir. Greg Martin hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Martin
Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen is also the author of The Corrections: A Novel, and The Discomfort Zone, a memoir.

Greg Martin

It's safe to say that no one in a Franzen novel comes from a happy family. Also, his characters hold onto their adolescent beefs against their families later into adulthood than might be considered healthy or natural. Their sexuality, too, has an adolescent intensity and compulsiveness, as if they're all late-bloomers discovering sex for the first time.

Franzen writes in a tight third-person point of view, avoiding the more natural first-person even in the long chapters of Patty's autobiography — like a tennis player running around his backhand. In this document, "Mistakes Were Made," written at the suggestion of her therapist, we learn that in reaction to her successful New York parents' lack of attention, Patty, a college basketball star, devoted herself with suffocating fervor to her two kids and their home in a transitional St. Paul neighborhood. After her cherished teenage son, Joey, fled next door to live with the right-wing family of his zombie-ishly devoted girlfriend, of whom Patty strenuously disapproved, she struggled with "the great emptiness of her life, the emptiness of her nest, the pointlessness of her existence now that the kids had flown." She wonders if too much freedom is at the heart of her misery.

Patty's husband, Walter, whose Swedish surname means "mountain-land," is passionate about overpopulation and birds. His so-called best friend, Richard Katz, is also significantly named, for the feline "sociopaths of the pet world" — we're told repeatedly that cats are responsible for killing some million songbirds a day in America. Richard cycles in and out of the Berglunds' life, a constant source of anxiety and competition, whether he's releasing successful CDs or building decks to make ends meet.

As his wife becomes increasingly unhinged by unhappiness, Walter has difficulty modulating his concerns and anger. After leaving his job at the Nature Conservancy, he becomes entangled in a misguided crusade to create a sanctuary for cerulean songbirds that involves cooperation with military contractors and mountaintop-removal mining. While he worries about the "romantic imperialism of his falling for [his] fresh and Asian" assistant, his son faces his own worries about his clingy girlfriend and shady deals supplying dubious parts for trucks in post-invasion Iraq.

Filled with anger, disappointment, depression and brilliant rants about cats, cars, celebrity, media (even NPR!) and much more, Freedom isn't a frolic. But it's a surprisingly moving and even hopeful epic in which Franzen's flawed but ultimately sympathetic characters try to figure out how to heed the engraved message that catches Patty's eye at her daughter's East Coast college: "USE WELL THY FREEDOM."

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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