Book review: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

An essay on Jonathan Franzen and his 2010 novel, “Freedom.” First published in Prospect, September 2010.

Two-thirds of the way through the 562-page bulk of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Joey Berglund and his girlfriend, Connie, meet in New York city—“its pedestrians half naked in the August heat, its bricks and bridges paled by haze”—to celebrate his 20th birthday, and conclude ten days of frantic sexual congress by getting married, obedient to one of the many “urgent irrational imperatives” that drive Franzen’s plot: lust, envy, rage, fear, familial loathing. Seven pages of action and heat cover Joey and Connie’s time in the city, yet just two sentences are spent on the wedding, and these glancingly: “when he did marry her, three days later, nothing changed at all. In the back of a cab, as they rode away from the courthouse, she wove her ringed left hand into his ringed right hand and rested her head on his shoulder with something that couldn’t quite be described as contentedness.”

There’s an extraordinary deftness on display here. Franzen—whose last novel, 2001’s The Corrections, propelled him into the most stratospheric of both literary and commercial orbits—refuses to waste words on anything that doesn’t serve his purpose. It’s a gift that’s on show again towards the end of the novel, in the sudden tragedy of a fatal accident. “The police report would not even offer the faintly consoling assurance of an instant killing,” we’re told in one of three sentences devoted to the incident. Beyond a few deadpan medical details, there’s nothing more to say: what is interesting is not the cruelty of fate but its human aftermath. To linger over this death would be, like lingering over Joey’s wedding, to succumb to the fallacy against which Freedom aims to inoculate its readers: of mistaking mere events for what really matters.

For a compendious and avowedly realist author, Franzen has impressively little interest in detail for its own sake: in set-pieces and historical reconstructions. “Only connect,” EM Forster once beseeched his characters; for Franzen, it seems everything is already connected, and the novelist’s job is to unpick the chains of consequence underlying modernity’s “trillion little bits of distracting noise.” It’s a scrutiny that gives his title, Freedom, a frequently bitter irony, as its cast struggle to assert themselves against the forces of history, biology and fate.

Set largely during 2003 and 2004, the book follows the lives of the Berglund family: an apparent mirror image of the self-consuming Lamberts whose “unfreedom” The Corrections anatomised. Walter and Patty Berglund—Joey’s parents—are the kind of preternaturally “good neighbours” to be found at the vanguard of American gentrification. We first meet them in the late 1980s in St Paul, the capital of Minnesota, busily turning a crumbling Victorian house into contemporary liberalism’s interpretation of the American dream: mom baking cookies and pondering the merits of cloth diapers, pop migrating from legal work in “outreach and philanthropy” to still worthier labours as a development officer for the Nature Conservancy, son and daughter lavished with a modestly principled supply of material goods.

Franzen’s subject is, as one might expect, the ugly collapse of these appearances: the damage that comes creeping round the edges of Walter and Patty’s noble assumptions in the form, initially, of the crass neighbours with whose daughter, Connie, Joey embarks on his first “teen fuckfestival.” Joey—bright, handsome, doted upon—reacts to his mother’s hysterical disapproval by switching his allegiances and moving to live next door, a zone of untrammelled Republican consumption: beer keg, baseball, vast television and pickup. Patty, a former All-American basketball player whose career was ended by injury, pours her competitive drive first into passive-aggressive and then into outright aggressive (slashed pickup tyres) rage. Walter, who has spent his life working every hour of every day in order to escape the alcoholic poverty of his dismal Midwestern childhood, retreats into work and an increasingly messianic environmental zeal. Their earnest daughter, Jessica, sits and watches things fall apart.

Within the first 26 pages, Joey has gone to college, Walter to work in Washington, Patty into herself, and the house been sold. The remainder is causes and aftermath. Franzen sifts the weight of Walter and Patty’s family histories, while Joey begins to realise what having such a history means.

As in The Corrections, part of Franzen’s gift is the ability to spin literary metaphor out of the most inertly contemporary reaches of language: the financial, the medical, the scientific, and now the digital. Joey, like his country, must face the “ballooning of the interest charges on his high-school pleasures”; entering a friend’s house, he finds “himself floating through the beautiful rooms like a helium molecule” and is given “a milfy smile” by his friend’s mother. A milf—an acronym popularised by the 1999 film American Pie—means a “mother I’d like to fuck,” and Franzen’s annexation of the word is a masterclass in how literature can happily span every corner of language.

Elsewhere, characters deliver miniature dissertations on digital foibles—“I think the iPod is the true face of Republican politics… We’re about giving ourselves a mindless feel-good treat every five minutes”—that are sufficiently sharp, specific and intensely characterised to rise above the quasi-crankery underpinning them. There’s even a spot-on dissection of email addresses, comparing the “piquant flavors” of the @gmails and @cruzios of this world to the liberalkid @ expensivecollege.edus from whom Walter is used to receiving internship applications.

Here, then, is an author able to take on the fragmented public arenas of the 21st century and come away victorious—even bearing hope, of a kind. If anything, Freedom’s younger generation are stronger and wiser than their elders. Children of a digital age, their scope is vaster than that of any previous generation: their planet older and more crowded, the burden of their freedom correspondingly greater. Arriving for the first time in South America, Joey’s greatest surprise is his own lack of innocence and amazement: “except that everything was in Spanish and more people were smoking, civilization here seemed like civilization anywhere.” The struggle for Joey and his contemporaries is not to learn or to cope: it is to slow down, to stop mistaking knowledge for understanding.

“It’s doubtful,” Franzen once claimed in an interview, “that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” Clearly something large is changing in our culture and, while Freedom is an avowedly old-fashioned kind of art, it repeatedly achieves what its cast so often cannot: yoking past and present together, finding human continuities beneath the static hum of events.

At times, though, the weight of Franzen’s gifts can be crushing. Walter’s best friend from college—a long-struggling rock musician, Richard—spends the first decades of his career producing “wryly titled records that a certain kind of critic and about five thousand other people in the world liked to listen to, and doing small-venue gigs attended by scruffy, well-educated white guys who were no longer as young as they used to be.” This is excellent satire, and good journalism, but a limiting kind of fiction—wittily shallow, and tinged with contempt.

Franzen is sometimes compared to the late Nobel laureate Saul Bellow (1915-2005), another native Chicagoan, born 44 years before Franzen and one of the presiding geniuses of 20th-century American realism. Both are masters of massed casts, of familial feeling, and of gifting their characters passionate speech—long-repressed but ultimately explosive outpourings of deep feeling. Yet it is inconceivable that any of Franzen’s characters might say, as Bellow’s Charles Citrine does in Humboldt’s Gift (1975), that “on aesthetic grounds, if on no others, I cannot accept the view of death taken by most of us, and taken by me during most of my life… that so extraordinary a thing as a human soul can be wiped out forever.”

Transcendence is not among the freedoms on offer in Freedom. There is, rather, an exacting pragmatism about even its most agonised declarations. When Walter’s betrayal and rage eventually boil over, it comes as a diatribe against an existential threat of the most literal kind: population growth. “WE ARE ADDING THIRTEEN MILLION HUMAN BEINGS TO THE POPULATION EVERY MONTH! THIRTEEN MILLION MORE PEOPLE TO KILL EACH OTHER IN COMPETITION OVER FINITE RESOURCES!” All of which allows Franzen a neatly subversive coda: the rant becomes a viral hit via YouTube and wins Walter a national following of disaffected youth, an anarchic collective with whose sentiments he duly becomes disaffected himself.

Stylistically and intellectually, one novelist Franzen closely resembles is Britain’s most famous Bellovian disciple, Martin Amis. Here is Franzen describing Joey’s feelings towards Connie shortly before their marriage: “Connie of late was hitting him higher and higher up: in his stomach, his breathing muscles, his heart.” This could come straight from late Amis—in its cadences, but also in its impulse towards an almost medical precision: mapping emotion across the internal organs.

There’s little room for a soul in the cavities of this human chest. The heart of human behaviour seems, for Franzen, to be not so much an inscrutable mystery as a more-or-less scrutable animal—governed by powerfully irrational impulses but knowable nonetheless. In this sense, our longing for freedom is a brutal paradox: the instincts urging us onwards are themselves a prison we can never escape. And all the self-knowledge and beautiful words in the world cannot change this.

Fortunately, in the form of the Berglunds at least, the sometimes spurious tendencies of Franzen’s scientism are consistently surpassed. Freedom is a captivating read; an expertly-managed narrative that is also excellent art. Most satisfyingly of all, it’s as finely attuned to the cultural tone of the last ten years as The Corrections was to the 1990s. If the meaning of its title can at times feel paralysingly bleak—“My problem is I don’t like people enough… I don’t really believe they can change” declares Walter towards the end, a sentiment it is easy to believe his creator echoes—it is nevertheless a remarkable tonic for bleak times to find them so completely and confidently treated.