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.