Do you listen to National Public Radio? Do you recycle? Contribute to environmental causes? Shop at Whole Foods? Skew your dining towards farm-to-table restaurants? Do you watch “The Daily Show” and scoff at Fox News?
If you answered “yes” to several of these questions, you might recognize reflections of yourself in Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel “Freedom”. And these reflections aren’t flattering at all. Franzen’s tale follows the disintegration of an upper middle class family that by all outward appearances (such as those described above) should be “the good guys” – and yet, the Berglunds prove to be as self-absorbed and morally compromised a clan as you might find.
The story follows Walter and Patty Berglund – as they meet and marry soon after college in the 70s and into their early middle age. The Berglunds also are in interdependent orbit with Walter’s best friend, the wanting-to-be-iconoclastic-but-merely-ends-up-stereotypical musician, Richard Katz. Their relationships are complicated: Walter and Richard really do have a bond, but yet each measures himself against the other. Early on, Patty nearly moves to New York with Richard, but instead opts (some might argue “settles”) for the stable, “nice guy” Walter.
It is this story – the Walter-Patty-Richard dance over decades – that drives the narrative and where Franzen gets the most emotional payoff and insight into the approaching-middle-age “is this all there is?” mid-life crisis – the slow wall-building that leads to a passive aggressive détente masquerading as a happy marriage. Good times.
Unfortunately, the story also follows that of the Berglund’s ambitious, selfish, Gen-X son Joey who is maybe the most unlikeable character I’ve come across in years. He is not only unlikeable, but worse yet he is unbelievable (no one would put up with his shit. Sorry). It’s too bad, too, because Joey’s story – emblematic of the current generational malaise – should have been powerful, but ended up being an obviously false prop in an otherwise good production.
The idea of freedom is of course an American touchstone and reverberates throughout in the main characters’ yearnings – the freedom to walk away, the freedom to say and do what you want, the freedom to hate thy neighbor, the freedom to try and find love wherever you can, the freedom to live in peace and quiet – which are juxtaposed against the self- and society-imposed constrictions that make such freedoms seem so elusive.
“Freedom” is an ambitious work that takes on big topics: love, family, loyalty, jealousy, redemption, and politics (in that arena, Franzen can’t seem to write anything but a cookie-cutter depthless conservative – another missed opportunity for real impact). Is it a great book? No — I think it’s too flawed to be considered great, but it should engender great and spirited discussions among those that have read it.
Three stars out of five.