Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” is full of heartbreak, cruelty, and pain. Its characters seem to invent new ways to injure each other on every page, often when their intent is just the opposite. When they are not hurting one another they will spend their time making decisions you know they will regret (many of which even they know they will regret) and that will do lasting damage to their consciences. Consider yourself warned: this is not a book for the faint-of-the-heart, for your grandmother’s book club, or for people looking to be uplifted by a story about the triumph of the human spirit. It is a bleak and often despairing look at human life in the twenty-first century. All of that may make “Freedom” a curious, and, given their history, genuinely shocking pick for Oprah’s Book Club, but it also makes it one of the best contemporary novels I’ve ever read.
“Freedom” concerns itself with the lives of the Berglunds, a family of four which moves from St. Paul to Washington, D.C. Patriarch Walter Berglund is a do-gooder conservationist who wants the world to realize the dangers of constant population growth. Wife Patty is a former All-American college basketball player who rebels against her emotionally distant and unsupportive State Assemblywoman mother by choosing to be a traditional housewife. Their children are Joey, a fiercely independent boy who abandons his family for his submissive girlfriend Connie, and Jessica, a coolly intelligent girl who seems to hold everyone to the same high standards to which she holds herself. Walter’s best friend Richard Katz, a musician’s musician perennially just this short of stardom, pops in and out of the action, wreaking havoc whenever it isn’t called for.
“Freedom” is more character-based than plot-driven, which is not to say that there is no story (this is, refreshingly, a rather traditional novel, with little to no artsy pretensions) but that the characters are our entry into the action. Every plot point is informed by their personalities, rather than a test through which we discover their personalities.
The novel divides neatly into sections. The opening is a soaring overview of the family’s history in Saint Paul, from Walter and Patty’s often poorly-received efforts to gentrify their neighborhood to the aftermath of Joey’s decision to move into his girlfriend’s family’s house next door. Subsequent sections are told from the perspective of the characters, including parts of an autobiography Patty was assigned to write by her therapist, which is nonetheless written in the third person. The only major character not to have her own section is Jessica, a curious authorial choice, and perhaps a disappointing, though understandable one. It could be extremely tiresome viewing the world through the eyes of someone who thinks they are always right.
By now I bet you are asking: what’s with that title? A little arrogant, no? A tad uninformative? Perhaps even a bit bland, so far as it goes? I admit I thought so too, and to some extent still find it problematic, but Freedom is indeed a central theme of the novel. (It’s just hard to think of other classic novels named so blatantly after their themes.) Each of the characters in the novel is seeking to exercise their freedom and become an independent self. Mostly they are trying not to be the people their parents’ were, and failing in spite of their best efforts. Patty, who thought her mother was a bad mother, overcorrects and smothers Joey with her affection (Jessica won’t let anyone over-love her) and eventually pushes him away, much like her own mother did to her through indifference. Walter’s father’s only consolation in life was that he wasn’t as bad a drunk as Walter’s grandfather, but he winds up being just as cruel to his wife. Walter subsequently avoids the drink altogether, but becomes just as much of a political crank as his father was, albeit in support of radically different causes.
“Freedom” takes a dim view of the nuclear family. Every family in this book is deeply flawed and each leaves its damaging fingerprints all over the next generation. The book is not quite deterministic, but argues persuasively for the importance of early influence. The families in the novel work as microcosms of society, where people’s individual selves are in constant conflict with the selves of other people. Franzen recognizes that one person’s happiness is almost certainly the root cause of someone else’s unhappiness. Walter himself doesn’t articulate this thought, but it might subconsciously inform his obsession with over-population. More people inevitably means more conflict in an economy of scarce resources.
It is too early to throw around terms like Great American Novel, timeless classic or masterwork; these are questions that can only be resolved by time. But “Freedom” is a serious work of art, a major attempt at grappling with life as it really as, and it is an impressive success. For all the pain, cruelty and heartbreak within its pages the thing that most suffuses “Freedom” is life. And there’s no greater compliment for a novel than that.