Last Tuesday I finally got around to finishing Jonathan Franzen’s long awaited new novel Freedom. (The one which Obama got hold of before its official publication which I consider highly unfair so that it might induce me to, one day, run for presidency.)
The story is – as was The Corrections – the portrait of a family on a very deep and intricate level. Franzen follows the life of Patty and Walter Berglund who, moving to St. Paul, Minnesota, act as the gentrifiers that renovate their cheap run-down Victorian and are the harbingers of a new hip neighborhood in the making.
However, the Berglund’s marriage deteriorates over time, their teenage son moves in with their republican neighbors against their will, Patty has a short but intense affair with Walter’s college friend, the musician Richard Katz, while Walter gives up his job at a nature conservancy to work for a gas and coal magnate, managing a doubtful conservancy project.
Franzen’s depiction of the characters is almost pitiless at times yet sentimental and forgiving in other instances. Patty’s love for her husband Walter and her desire for his friend Richard are at once tragic yet also provokie a strong dislike towards her. Her apologetic manner, her inability to express her love and to decide whom to be with make her highly disagreeable. Likewise ,Walter’s unconditional love for Patty and his care for nature are remarkable features which are then counter-balanced by his anal-retentive integrity, his inability to show love for his son and his unnerving capacity for self-deception in his dealings with the big coal firms.
It is safe to say that none of the characters in Franzen’s novel is easy to like. And I personally wouldn’t like to be friends with a single one of them. This is, however, one of the things that makes the reading experience of Freedom such a compelling force. Though none of the characters seems to be highly likable, Franzen manages to keep us interested in their foint ate. This is also due to his narrative strategies. The novel starts with a very broad and biased view on the Berglund’s deteriorating marriage through the eyes of their St. Paul neighbors. As a counter strategy the next chapter is then written in the form of a personal history revealed by Patty herself. This part of the novel is one of the best, I would argue, as it exposes Patty’s feelings and doubts and while it puts into perspective the biased view of Patty’s neighbors it also expresses some of her worst character flaws. Patty’s personal narrative is then followed by accounts told from the perspective of the different characters. However, the diary is picked up again when Patty writes a conclusion six years after she has been evicted by Walter because of her affair with Richard.
The novel might have ended here, however, as in The Corrections before, Franzen seems unable to let his novel end on a hopeless note and concludes it with a last chapter that resolves some of the conflicts.
In my opinion, Franzen revels in the topic of depression quite readily and let’s his characters wallow in self-pity once too often. (All of them either have a serious depression at some point in their life of at least think they have) Likewise many of the sex scenes seem to reek of a little too much internet porn, not to mention Franzen’s sexist depiction of most women in the story. Especially Walter’s affair Lalitha is an enervating source of nothing but admiration, shallow positive energy, and nerve grinding assiduity to please. That Franzen finally finishes her off in a car accident seems to be one of his strong moments in dealing with the character. Nevertheless, Franzen’s novel is a strong piece of fiction, well written, witty and often brutally concise in its depiction of how our personal freedom can also be terribly painful.