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Jonathan Franzen: Freedom

I try to avoid excessively hyped novels in the year of their publication, in order to get a certain distance between my reading and what others might say but I did succumb in this case, probably the most over-hyped literary novel in living memory. It has been put forward as a candidate for the Great American Novel but also damned as a sloppy, overwritten, mildly amusing extended sitcom. Franzen appeared on the cover of Time as the Great American Novelist and also appeared on Oprah Winfrey, with his book chosen for her book club, apparently forgiven for his previous transgressions. So I hardly came into this book unprepared. Whatever you may think of this book, Franzen has grasped one essential point. For those that do not live in the United States (and for many that do) you should know that freedom does not mean what it means for much of the rest of the world. It means the right, free of government hindrance, to do what you want, however obnoxious. This means the right to own guns and kill animals (and people) at will, the right to smoke, do drugs and get seriously drunk when and where you want, the right to destroy the environment and overconsume, the right to illegally invade foreign countries because you don’t like them or because they have something you want (often oil), the right to exploit others and the right to make money however you can and whatever harm it might cause. Add to this the right to object to those who do things you don’t like (abortion and homosexuality, for example), often In The Name of the Lord, and the right to oppose the government for doing anything to help others, unless it is something you approve of (invading foreign countries, building roads, providing you with social security). None of these is unique to citizens of the United States but it is primarily the citizens of the United States who take these rights as something sacred, even when the illogicality and/or positive harm they cause is pointed out. Franzen grasps this definition of freedom perfectly. Indeed, much of his book is about this issue. It is a very valid point and one well worth making but does Franzen do it justice?

The story concerns a married couple, Walter and Patty (née Emerson) Berglund, their immediate family and friends/associates. Many, though certainly by no means all the best novels focus on one person. Franzen does not focus on one of this group but on several, a strategy which is fraught with risks, not least, particularly when they are opposed to one another, we have to make a difficult decision whom to identify with. This is not an insoluble problem but does make it more difficult for Franzen to keep our attention. We also follow these people over a long period of time and when they suddenly change their standard behaviour, there is a risk of it being more of soap opera tactic than a reasoned and logical character development and, to be frank, Franzen does sometimes leave us thinking that he has succumbed to the afternoon TV approach, in order to get Oprah’s audience. The odd sudden plot twist – a young character dying suddenly, for example – enhances this feeling. The opening section – the most successful in my view – has Patty Emerson at university where she is a basketball star. Her childhood has not been particularly happy, as she felt that her parents cared less for her, as she did not have the intellectual/artistic talent of her siblings, and were not the slightest bit interested in her prowess on the basketball court. At university she focused entirely on her course and her sports and associated only with fellow basketball players till she met Eliza. Eliza was not interested in sports but was colourful and different and neurotic. She was into sex and drugs and rock’n’roll and Patty took to her. Their somewhat strange relationship is a key part of the early section of the book but it abruptly disappears, with Eliza’s role being reduced to being the conduit to Patty getting to know Walter and Richard.

Walter had grown up as the son of an abusive man of Swedish descent. He had come into some money and bought a run down Bates motel-like motel. As his father despised Walter’s intellectual pretensions, Walter was given all the really unpleasant jobs at the motel as a child, while his father drunk and hunted. Walter is, generally, a decent sort of man, who is very concerned about the environment, particularly overpopulation. He shares a room with Richard, the antithesis to Walter, in that he, like Eliza, is into sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. Richard, however, appears to have some musical talent and has a moderately successful band, of which he is the singer and songwriter. He will go on to make a career as a minor rock star. Patty, accompanying Eliza, also hangs around the band and thereby meets Walter. However, in good soap opera style, she pays the price for her sexual/romantic interest in Walter. The couple do get married – the novel starts with them married – with Patty becoming a wife/mother, while Walter works first for 3M, then the Nature Conservancy and finally a trust concerned with protecting the cerulean warbler. Much of the book is concerned about the relationships between these three characters (and a few others) as well as the two children of Patty and Walter, particularly their son, Joey.

That Joey is not like his father is clear. He has a messy and complicated love life and is interested in making money any way he can. While I would not call this a 9/11 novel, 9/11 does hover in the background, particularly the attitudes it brings. Joey might be said to be, in some way, a child of 9/11. But he serves a purpose to show both the clash of attitudes in the United States and also the clash between the generations. Of course, Franzen has a host of other characters who interact with these characters to make his points and, naturally, the relationships between these characters and the main characters is what makes the novel.

But does it work? I don’t think that there is any doubt that Franzen does show this special concept of freedom that prevails in the United States and also shows its personal, political, environmental and economic costs. But these points can be and undoubtedly have been made much better in works of non-fiction. A novel has a different role and in that Franzen is less successful. As I have shown, he slips into soap opera mode too often. The book is very long and could have done with some editing. The main characters are generally well drawn but do not always convince. And the plot – will they, won’t they, who will sleep with whom?, how will their lives turn out – is nothing original but, as usual, fascinating in a soap opera kind of way. It is probably worth reading but it certainly is not the Great American Novel.

Publishing history

First published 2010 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux