I waited 9 years for this novel, and everybody, including the hard to please Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times is fawning high praise on this novel. This novel is surely worth spending the time on true critical investigation. I’m really going to dig into Freedom, so obviously, spoilers within. With that in mind, I’m going to start with the ending.
Freedom, of course, is about freedom in America, in the 21st century. Walter and Patty Berglund, and their two children Joey and Jessica, live a suburban life that has enough drama and money as to be normal, but not dull. As their children grow older, have problems of their own, Walter and Patty drift apart, each becoming focused on, respectively, conservation of songbirds, and wasted opportunity. Freedom is about their lives unravelling, in ways mirrored by America itself.
Firstly, the end is very unsatisfying, but not in the sense that it doesn’t finish things up, in that it presents a slight happy ending for the married couple. Considering the doom-laden hopelessness that runs throughout the entire novel, the happy ending seems to be a contradiction.
Secondly, the political aspects of the novel were frustrating and one-sided. While I personally agree with a lot of what Franzen is saying, it does seem like the novel is but a soapbox. Walter is often nothing more than a mouthpiece for Franzen’s loathing of a modern world.
Thirdly, the setting of “this minute” and “this moment” is kind of annoying - especially Franzen’s express desire to seem “with it” and hip, ie the inclusion of Bright Eyes, a decidedly indie band. But I suppose the references could work in a hundred years, considering that Franzen gives enough information to understand the implications of the modern age reference.
There’s a dark side to Franzen’s wanting to a write a novel set in the here and the now. When characters of Franzen’s age speak of the previous generation, there’s nothing but contempt. Walter and Patty have such utter contempt for youth, with their sullen attitude, their self-absorption, their expectations that everybody owes them something. The vitriol is sudden and alarming, and it goes hand in hand with Franzen’s dislike of newer technology, such as BlackBerrys and iPods. When Lalitha, Walter’s assistant, is using her BlackBerry, it’s always in the context of interrupting something, or being distracting. When any iPod is being used, it’s in the context of blocking out another person.
On the flipside, Walter, Franzen’s obvious mouthpiece, is concerned with the encroachment of the technological world on his lakeside property. At the end of the novel, his life has been ruined and his dreams crushed, symbolized by a new development built and occupied by his property. His divorce from reality is symbolized in his kidnapping of a housecat that hunts the diminishing bird population in the area.
If one combines the theme of hopelessness and the theme of fear of technological progress, one has a very alarming picture of the psyche of the author: scared and angry.
While it isn’t a bad thing to be scared and angry, I personally find it irritating when people complain about new emerging tech or trends. Since technology is really here to stay, I can’t understand why people would so ardently struggle against it.
Fourthly, Franzen’s absolute mastery of the novel as a long form has to be admired. While each part could potentially stand alone as a short story (with some very specific editing and rearranging), the parts function together, in a strict linear sense. However, the timeline is slightly juggled in the middle part of the novel, but at no point was this confusing or impossible to follow. I wished this novel could have been longer.
Franzen has said in a couple interviews his admiration for the old style "big" novel, like Anna Karenina or War and Peace (which makes an appearance in this novel). He has made his version of that novel, but setting it in the here and now.
Of the storylines running through the novel, Joey’s seems to be the most interesting. His is most indicative of the strange subtheme of the poisonous nature of relationships. Freedom from each other, but including our own civil liberties seems to be impossible, as evidenced by Joey. He’s in an unhealthy and unbalanced relationship with Connie, a cipher, who is only understood by Joey.
Joey treats Connie poorly, makes her suffer, imprisons her within a circle of promises and sex. But he, himself, is imprisoned by Connie, imprisoned by his abuse of her. He can’t stop himself from treating her poorly.
Freedom, as a concept, is very important to American fiction as a whole. In early American fiction, the concept of asylum was extremely prevalent. Asylum from the Old Country, asylum from moral turpitude, asylum from a world the Americans wanted no part of. But, just like in Franzen’s novel, asylum works both ways, protecting you from the world, but also protecting the world from you. In Freedom, Franzen is exploring the illusion of freedom as experienced by people who can never be free. Walter will never be free of his love for Patty. Patty will never be free of Richard’s hold. Richard will never be free of his perceived inferiority to Walter. Joey will never be free of his mother’s oppressive love. Connie will never be free of Joey. And on and on and on. Everybody is stuck in this cycle, seeking asylum, but never understanding what they need to properly escape, like sex.
I’m sure somebody better with aphorisms said something about how all fiction is about sex, and Freedom certainly fits the mould. However, sex is used a tool of power, it seems. In this novel, intercourse isn’t an expression of any emotion other than control. Sex is a conquest, something to have achieved. Patty tortures herself over the course of a couple months, deciding whether or not to have sex with Richard, the rock star and former college roommate of her husband. Once the inevitable deed is done, it’s a tick in the box for adultery. It’s something Patty wanted so bad, she had to have it, divorcing the act from any emotional meaning beyond cheating on her husband. The sex means nothing, and she spends pages upon pages trying to convince herself of that.
For Joey, sex is also conquest. This journey that Patty takes is mirrored with Joey when he tries to sleep with a Jewish princess who has no interest in him other than his innate ability to make money (in shadowy ways, providing Franzen with an opportunity to wax sorrow on the state of American entrepreneurialism). Once Joey lies enough to Connie, and manages to convince the object of his lust to have sex with him, the deed means nothing. Adding to this is Joey’s metaphorical treatment of his marriage by literally eating, digesting, and evacuating his wedding ring, in a hilarious and disturbing scene.
The novel is funny and never boring. Franzen’s deft skill with characterization is the highlight of the novel. As with other expert sketchers of character, he can quickly establish an entire person with only a couple paragraphs. It’s an amazing and difficult thing to pull off. If you have made it this far in my review, you can obviously see that there is a lot going on in this novel. I’m sure better critics and analysts will see my thoughts as sophomoric, but it does reveal a much larger iceberg beyond the visible surface. Freedom is an excellent novel, and worthy of standing near his masterpiece The Corrections. It’s just too bad that Franzen’s fear of progress and criticisms of a younger generation slightly detract, but not fatally so. I strongly recommend it.