Jonathan Franzen: Freedom

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom sweeps into the UK on a supporting thermal of wild praise from the US – and a very funny video review by Ron Charles of the Washington Post (“The New York Times ran their first review of Freedom back in 1834″). I read The Corrections in 2001 when it swept in on a supporting thermal of etc. but can’t remember much about it, or even whether I liked it. Perhaps that should have been a warning for how much, or little, Freedom would move me.

(A word about the covers. Franzen’s UK and US publishers seem to be battling to produce the weakest cover design. For me, the US edition just takes it with its Microsoft WordArt-inspired monstrosity – see below – over the UK edition’s set-square-and-ruler look. Either way, I suppose each achieves its aim of being highly distinctive in the bookstores.)

Freedom starts well, with an idiosyncratic and multi-viewpoint portrayal of Walter and Patty Berglund as seen by their neighbours and themselves. “There had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds. … [They] were the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege.” This last observation is by Seth Paulsen, and the persisting belief among some that liberalism ought to be the preserve of the unprivileged, that a limitless commitment to personal liberty is the American way, is a recurring theme of the book (as the title trumpets).

This short overture gives way to a long opening movement, a 160-page memoir by Patty Berglund (“Composed at Her Therapist’s Suggestion”) cutely titled ‘Mistakes Were Made’. Books within books are always a risk, but the opening scenes of Patty’s story are excellent. They read like self-contained, award-winning set pieces: the one about the prom date; the one about the obsessive friend. These sections, not incidentally, introduce one of Franzen’s greatest strengths – his representation of the passive-aggressive dialogues between growing children and their parents. It’s a quality which remains a highlight of the book throughout.

Through what happens in the early parts of the memoir (and the obsessive friend Eliza is a great creation, gripping and dangerous like the damaged Anna in Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room), Patty comes to learn that “there was something congenitally undefended about [her] heart”. Here it is that the great wrenching agony of her life will begin: choosing between the proper, intellectual Walter, and his roommate (and sometime lover of Eliza) Richard, who is a musician and “6’4″ and heavy-shouldered and as dark-complected as Walter was light”. Patty is a sportswoman, and her natural affinity – her lust – is for cool, beautiful Richard, but her close friendship with Eliza has softened her up for an unlikely alliance between “a poet and a jock”. Anyway, we know who she chooses, since this is all flashback from her married life with Walter, but she vacillates for months (or was it years?), temptations not quashed by Eliza’s vivid description of her and Richard’s lovemaking: “He’s so big, it’s like being rolled over by a neutron star. It’s like being erased with a giant eraser.” (And he reads Thomas Bernhard: ladies, join the queue!) Walter-and-Patty is a nice portrayal of love developing not, in the romcom style, either at first sight or from initial hatred, but from indifference.

However this will-she-won’t-she stuff – the memoir section generally (the book generally) – goes on for too long. (It’s repeated later with Patty and Walter’s son, Joey, and his hankerings after the beautiful Jenna.) It’s a fine call to make a judgement on this. Walter and Patty’s relationship is the human heart of the book, and Patty at least feels like a real person; there’s too much of their ups and downs, but without it you have a bunch of environmental speeches and tussles on liberalism v liberty. The former involve mountaintop removal mining and the protection of the cerulean warbler, but more centrally the issue of population growth. While hardly a novel subject for a novel, one might say that now is a pretty good time to bring it up again.

Mainstream economic theory, both Marxist and free-market, Walter said, took for granted that economic growth was always a positive thing. A GDP growth rate of one or two per cent was considered modest, and a population growth rate of one per cent was considered desirable, and yet, he said, if you compounded these rates over a hundred years, the numbers were terrible.

This is all directing the reader to the heart of the book: the American attachment to individual liberty and suspicion of government which is so baffling to many Europeans. Walter is descended from a man who fled to the US from Sweden, a country notable largely for its regular high rankings in quality of life indices. Franzen’s liberal take shows when the narrator, rather than a character, observes that “the American experiment of self-government [was] statistically skewed from the outset, because it wasn’t the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn’t get along well with others.”

Everyone wants freedom, he seems to say, but look what happens when we get it. The environment goes bang in the noonday sun. Families disintegrate, the responsibilities of parenting seeming to outweigh the prizes, the limitations of being a child viewed as an infringement of rights. Culture atrophies: “There’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. […] Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli.” Freedom is simultaneously irresistible and unsatisfying, a point Franzen brings home right to the end of the book – an end which, if it didn’t fit in so neatly with the overall theme, would risk looking like a cop-out. “Freedom is a pain in the ass.”

Freedom is not a pain in the ass. It is not a bad book; it is a good book. There is much to see and do, though it drags at times, like a too-long holiday. The characters’ dilemmas are clearly presented and thoroughly explored. But the storytelling is often treated with disdain: Franzen despatches big events – a marriage, a death – almost as asides, as though such compelling human dramas are not worthy of his Big Literature. For the claims of Franzen being a great stylist (made by Ron Charles for one), I rarely found myself taking pure delight in the prose itself. It is a book which demands to be read largely because everyone else seems to be reading it – a quality which, rather than making this a timeless literary (or rather cultural) milestone, actually risks stamping it with a sell-by date. Many will find pleasure in the journey, but those bold enough to take a pass on it may, I feel, not find themselves missing all that much. The paradox is that I had to read it, and had some pleasure myself in doing so, to find that out.


  1. A supplementary note about the UK cover, which I dissed in the body of the review. I have seen only the proof edition and the image from online bookstores (above). Others who have seen the finished UK edition say it looks much better than that, even a thing of beauty. So I stand ready to eat my words.

  2. I never liked a Franzen book before, but was so inundated with e-mails from bookshops wanting to flog _Freedom_ to me, that I was almost tempted to try it.

    Then, I read B.R. Myers’ grumpy review. And now there is yours. So, I think my time is better spend with one of those millions of other books I still haven’t read.

    Thank you.

  3. Thanks for the link, ijsbrand. I read Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto a few years ago and didn’t think much of it, largely because his incessant grumpiness becomes almost comical. He really can’t see anything to like in these authors? And now, he really can’t see anything to like in Freedom. No doubt that’s his honest view, and hatchet jobs are fun to read, but a little light and shade wouldn’t go amiss. I’m not recommending Freedom, but it’s not in my opinion as bad as he makes out.

  4. I love your description of this novel `dragging like a too long holiday’. I think what your review says here could also be applied to The Corrections . Although Franzen’s analysis of family relations in that novel was often touching and perceptive ( the mother’s dream of uniting her children for Christmas for example), in my recollection the novel outstayed its welcome and became far too rambling and at times self indulgent. However, there was enough wit and recognisable skewering of middle class behaviour to understand why the novel was such a hit at the time. I can imagine that the same thing might apply to this one too. Despite the flaws there was much to enjoy in The Corrections and from your review it sounds as if Freedom is worth reading although perhaps not the Great American Novel that the hoopla seems to suggest..

  5. No! I’ve already pre-ordered it!

    Seriously, I can see my anticipated disappointments echoed in your comments. The problem I have is, it’s a big, fat, lusty American novel and I’m a sucker for the like. Even the overlong passages you speak of don’t deter. I’m eagerly looking forward to a potentially mediocre doorstop!

  6. A nice counterpoint to the hysteria about this book, John.
    I do remember liking The Corrections but as to the book itself? – I can’t recall that much to be honest. It certainly didn’t deserve the praise it got, and that’s doubtless true of this effort.

    You’re right about the covers, by the way, both pretty poor efforts.

    Is “everyone else is reading it” always a good reason to slog through a book, especially one this length? And for such relatively meagre reward? I think if I do ever read this, it’ll be because I like Franzen’s shorter collections, How To Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone, which show off his writing skills without the added portentiousness, Time magazine covers, Oprah-hoopla etc. In a way Franzen is more interesting because of the place he occupies in American (and hence our) culture rather then the books he writes.

  7. I guess a lot of people will be reading Freedom to see what exactly it is that makes people say it is a ‘great American novel’, and especially after Franzenfreude. I enjoyed Freedom when I read it years ago, but I also read that after the furore surrounding Franzen’s withdrawal from the Oprah book club. Interesting, no?

  8. When Corrections was published, I noted it (hard not to) but decided to pass–later (after the first rush of excitement thundered by) some of the reviews I read led me to think I’d made the right decision. So, when I saw Freedom, my first reaction was negative. I don’t think I’ll be reading this. The neutron star comment nailed it.

    The political stuff sounds pasted on. Is that a fair assessment?

  9. I don’t know about pasted on, Guy – the political stuff is linked to the central characters (and there’s an episode to do with the war in Iraq, involving Patty and Walter’s right-wing entrepreneur son Joey: the equivalent I suppose of the Vilnius stuff in The Corrections) – but it ain’t subtle. It’s all up front and in your face. I suppose that’s a fair comment on the book generally.

  10. “There is much to see and do, though it drags at times, like a too-long holiday.”

    I have personally never had a holiday that felt too long, so maybe that means this will be the book for me! 😀 I personally really enjoyed The Corrections when I read it a few years ago, so I’m looking forward to reading Freedom a good deal. I agree that Franzen sometimes has the tendency to beat a dead horse in his books, but his writing is so good I generally forgive him that!

  11. Very perceptive thoughts, John, which help to confirm my Freedom strategy. I do have a copy, I did like The Corrections (and remember more of it than most of the commentors do) and actually look forward to this book, given the right conditions. The “right conditions” will be the arrival of the first extended Canadian winter spell (think of it as the opposite of a “too-long holiday”, but the opposing metaphors do both make sense) when a book that maybe has a bit too much to it is welcome (not to mention that Minnesota cold spells aren’t that different from Alberta ones). Your guarded approval of the book means more to me than the over-the-top American reviews.

    On the design front, I would like ot note that if North American readers want to avoid the not-very-good dust jacket by removing it they are out of luck — a lavendar (okay, bright purple) extend spine into a black front board. Very niced stitched signatures to avoid cocking, however.

  12. You’ve helped me here, John. I have a copy of the book and haven’t been able to start it, despite enjoying the excerpts I read in The New Yorker. I haven’t been able to start it because I know I won’t really be responding to the book but rather to the hype going on around it. I’m hoping it dies down a bit, and your review’s “guarded approval,” as Kevin mentioned, at least helps me get into the right state of mind for reading it. Still, it will be a while.

  13. I enjoyed the corrections and will probably read this at some ,just to seee what the fuss is about ,do wonder if certain American writers spend to long trying to write the great American novel I feel Frantzen tops the current pile so wonder if this has more style over content in it ? ,all the best stu

  14. I read The Corrections, loved it and remember most of it! The thing I recall most clearly was the humour, and the way he took the piss out of everything middle-class. (TC Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain did something similar.)

    I’m keen to read Freedom, helped in part by your review (not as biting as I thought you’d write!!) and Blake Morrison’s perceptive review in last Saturday’s Guardian, but I’ll probably wait until the hype dies down a little.

    As to the covers, I’m afraid I’m not a fan of either design, but in the long run I don’t suppose it matters because this book will fly off the shelves even if it came wrapped in a potato sack (or some such).

  15. Oh god, I was so keen to read this a few months ago, in spite of being in a similar position to you re. The Corrections (I know that I did enjoy it but I have very little recollection as to why, and I certainly didn’t feel my reading life altered by it), but all the hype and frankly lukewarm (or at least qualified) praise from British bloggers and reviewers has me already deflated and dreading a copy arriving. It’ll go up on the top shelf with the Amis and Mantell, another tome that threatens me from a distance and remains unread until the right time arrives, each day increasing the likelihood that it never will. A few others seem to be waiting for the malestrom to die down, maybe I should too and then it’ll feel like a better book.

  16. I have a copy of Freedom waiting to be read (probably after the hype, for reasons of wanting some space to read it and because I have quite a lot I want to read before it) and I’m cautiously looking forward to it. I read The Corrections three or four years ago and enjoyed it tremendously, and like kimbofo, can remember a lot of it.

    The problem is that I have read two other, admittedly non-fiction, books by Franzen since, and was disappointed by both of them. They were his collection of essays, How To Be Alone, and his memoir, The Discomfort Zone. If you think his fiction is self-indulgent, then blimey, wait till you read the non-fiction stuff. Perhaps that is more forgiveable in the memoir (can you write a memoir without being the teeniest bit self-indulgent?) but the essays were nigh on interminable.

    All of which leaves me with this quandry. Freedom is a work of fiction, so with any luck I’ll enjoy it a lot more than his non-fiction, given the fact that I loved The Corrections. But on the other hand, will even the merest touch of self-indulgence just remind me of those flippin’ essays? Only one way to find out, I suppose.

  17. Kirsty, I’m in the midst of Freedom. Initially, I found it quite annoying. That soon faded as the method became apparent. Though irksome twinges occur, it’s a fair hypnotic read thus far. I can’t wait to get back to it. So I’d certainly give it a go and bear that in mind (ie don’t launch it across the room as you may be compelled to at certain points!).

    On the essays, I found most of them quietly interesting but I would certainly concur that fiction is his strong suit.

  18. You sound as if you were a little bored by it John, as if it were a worthy relative one respects but doesn’t want to spend an evening with.

    I’ve not yet read The Corrections. My wife has and thought it very good, and I trust her judgment, but the sheer bulk of it has proven offputting at times.

    Franzen would of course blame that on the instantaneous nature of our culture, and he’d probably be right.

    Cautious approval. Hm. I feel no need to be up to date so I think I’ll wait a while on it. See how the dust settles. I may well decide to be one of “those bold enough to take a pass on it” who may “not find themselves missing all that much.”

  19. among the commentators very few have read the novel. That”s strange for me. How to compose some kiind of opinion withoaut reading (digesting) the book, – thanks John for the post.

  20. There’s an entire book on that topic Dr Fichte, titled How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. It’s by Pierre Bayard, a French literature professor.

    It sounds funny and cleverer than you might think, slightly shocking. I’d read it, but somehow that would seem to be missing the point.

  21. Hm, I’m about a quarter through this now… and as I’m re-reading your review, you will know that that means I’m not sure about the book. I’m with Ron Charles on the “Patty” “autobiography”. I’m finding it quite readable though, so will continue. I do think I will end up dismayed by the idea that this is The Great American Novel. (I haven’t read The Corrections, but I have a suspicion that it’s better than Freedom).

    1. Now two-thirds through and finding it a very good book. In fact, an easy-to-read page turner. Great American Novel? No. The hype almost ruined it for me as it kept invading my reading. There is a slight verge into the polemic in the section I just finished but he gets away with it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s