'Freedom' Explores What It Means to be Good

Jonathan Franzen

Walter's situation is indicative of that which all of Franzen’s characters face: How to negotiate our better selves against the tug of monetary gain, sexual desire, and the competitive streak that so often both defines and undoes us all.


Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Length: 576 pages
Price: $28.00
Author: Jonathan Franzen
Publication date: 2010-08

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom examines what it means to be good. The question seems straightforward enough, but have you tried ordering at a restaurant lately? Walter Berglund has, and he found the experience fraught with consequence: “Between the horrors of bovine methane, the lakes of watershed-devastating excrement generated by pigs and chicken farms, the catastrophic overfishing of the oceans, the ecological nightmare of farmed shrimp and salmon, the antibiotic orgy of dairy-cow factories, and the fuel squandered by globalization of produce, there was little he could order in good conscience besides potatoes, beans, and freshwater-farmed tilapia”. Thus, Franzen’s world and by extension our own: Lunch as moral dilemma. “Fuck it”, Walter says. “I’m having the ribeye”.

This is one of Walter’s earlier lapses, and on its heels follows his first beer, two points that resonate all the more because by this time in Walter’s life he is a middle-aged husband and a father of two. He is sitting across from a dark-skinned woman who works for him and who is young enough to be his daughter. They are celebrating Walter’s endeavor that simultaneously raises awareness about the perils of overpopulation and clears the way for rampant hilltop removal by a major coal company. Soon, Walter and his dinner date will have a sheet-burning affair, which is right around the time when things get really complicated.

Resist, if you can, the temptation to judge. Walter is hardly the only one in this book who strays. In fact, of the four principal characters—Walter; his wife, Patty; his best friend, Richard; and his son, Joey—Walter is the one whose transgressions are perhaps the most well intentioned. This is no midlife crisis, no red Ferrari. His motivations run deeper than that. His situation is indicative of that which all of Franzen’s characters face: How to negotiate our better selves against the tug of monetary gain, sexual desire, and the competitive streak that so often both defines and undoes us all. In short, how do we balance our ideals with the fact that we are human?

Franzen prevents his readers from getting too comfortable in the saddles of their high-horses by consistently mixing up the point of view. He opens and closes with a wide-angle lens, bookending his story with an omniscience that belongs to the community. First Patty and later Walter are described as they would appear to someone watching them through the Venetian blinds. This technique captures the “Oh, no he didn’t” nature of the suburbs, but Franzen resists granting it any kind of real validity by immediately pulling those blinds shut. For example, Patty’s first-person and Joey’s third-person limited perspectives test the community’s impression of Connie Monaghan, who might be deeply and hopelessly in love with Joey and who might be a She Devil. Eventually, I decided for myself what kind of person Connie is (not a She Devil), but it was only after Franzen forced me to consider her through a number of different filters.

The net effect is that you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself sympathizing with actions and beliefs that you might otherwise find repellent. Adulterers, drug addicts, prima-donna rockstars, Jewish-American princesses, and even Republicans are handled with more sensitivity than they typically receive in contemporary discourse. The way Franzen weaves politics into the story is especially noteworthy. Freedom includes politics without itself being overtly political (or at least partisan). Reagan, Jesse the Body, Bush II, Obama—they all earn a mention, but they function as cultural signposts in the same way that Batman or Achtung Baby or Bright Eyes do. They are just politicians, like Patty’s mother or like the well connected parents of the boy who raped her in high school.

These politicians aside, the politics emerge naturally from the characters. Walter, whose liberal heart doesn’t bleed as much as it hemorrhages, predictably spawns a Republican/Neo-Con in Joey. But Walter himself leans so far left that he sometimes ends up on the right: He rationalizes the havoc that his pet project wrecks on the environment, and, in any case, said pet project (population control) smacks more than just a little of fascism. At some point, Walter’s all-encompassing infatuation with nature becomes less about being a steward of the land and more about being a misanthropist.

In the meantime, Joey’s hyper-capitalistic tendencies—a watch-selling enterprise in high school is busted by the nuns—leads to him selling cheap armor to the US military in Iraq for a handsome profit. People will die because of Joey’s gain, yet somehow Walter kidnapping a cat seems like the greater affront, which indicates the topsy-turvy nature of the novel’s political landscape. I hate to be all Red State/Blue State, but Franzen demonstrates that beliefs and their consequences are more complicated than colors on a map. Party affiliation functions as a kind of shorthand, but it is little more than that.

Franzen balances liberal and conservative points of view so interestingly, in fact, that he includes a passage that actually helps me understand the mindset of a certain segment of the population more than any talking head ever has. He writes, “People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to”. I won’t ever watch a Tea Party rally without thinking about this idea. I’m not sure if I’ll ever forgive Franzen for this piece of understanding.

Freedom succeeds on the strength of being an idea-driven, socially-engaged work—everything from first-generation immigrants to today's lingering housing crisis fit inside—but the book distinguishes itself with the size of its heart. There's a version of this review that forgoes all of this mumbo jumbo about how to be good and switching points of view and politics as cultural signposts and focuses instead on Franzen's ability to juggle five different, convincing love stories: Walter and Patty, Patty and Richard, Joey and Connie, Walter and Lalitha (his dinner date from before), and even Walter and Richard all pack enough of a wallop to lead any discussion of the book. Richard pontificating to a young fan about the intersection of pop culture and commerce fascinates in a research-paper kind of way, but it is the accumulation of lives that bob and weave for over thirty years that ultimately leaves the lump in my throat.

For all of its triumphs, however, Freedom does suffer from a few missteps. At the beginning of this review, I mentioned that Walter is a father of two. His son, Joey, has warranted a few mentions since then; his daughter, Jessica, has not. This is a problem. I understand that Jessica's self-sufficiency means that she does not require as much attention from the Berglunds, but does it mean that she doesn't require as much attention from the author, as well? The lasting impression is not so much that her maturity has elevated her above the family; rather, it's that she is really underwritten.

In addition, on a few occasions, Franzen strains credibility when he strives to represent all of those various points of view, particularly with the two sections that are ostensibly Patty's “autobiography” (written at the behest of her therapist). Most of the time, he nails her voice exactly, as he does when he writes that “Patty spent most of that hot summer... feeling sorry for herself and experiencing low self-esteem.” But when Franzen interjects 300 pages between her diary entries, the reemergence of her voice feels both like the right move and an unwelcome return. That she begins this section with an apology for tone is a bit of a giveaway that something might be amiss: “The autobiographer... has been trying very hard to write these pages in first and second person”, she writes. “But she seems doomed, alas, as a writer, to be one of those jocks who refer to themselves in third person”.

So, too, do I remain ambivalent about the title, which strikes me as being loaded, perhaps unnecessarily so. I recognize that the word “freedom” appears repeatedly, and I appreciate that the concept behind it wrecks lives just as often as it enables them. I suspect Frazen's true feelings on the subject lie somewhere between the plaque at Jessica's college from 1920 that reads “Use well thy freedom” and the bit of advice that Joey receives from the conservative father of a would-be girlfriend, “Freedom is a pain in the ass”.

The best I can do is to group it with wealth and competition in a list of decidedly American traits that Franzen would rather we didn't take for granted.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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