‘Freedom’ Explores What It Means to be Good

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.

RATING 8 / 10