Freedom: A Novel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
576 pp., $28.00
Earlier this year, Britain's The Guardian asked thirty acclaimed novelists what ten rules guide their fiction writing. Among the participants was Jonathan Franzen, whose novel The Corrections became a literary sensation when it was published in 2001. In his response, Franzen wrote, "Fiction that isn't an author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn't worth writing for anything but money." This intimate view of writing made The Corrections the modern classic it is today, and it helps to explain why Freedom, Franzen's new novel about a broken family finding redemption, feels overshadowed by darkness.
At the outset, Walter and Patty Berglund appear to have the perfect family. Their children, Jessica and Joey, are preternaturally bright, while Patty's self-deprecating personality and Walter's concern for the environment endear them to their neighbors. Beneath the happy facade, however, cracks are forming. Patty's feelings for Walter's old college roommate, the cynical rock star Richard Katz, are poisoning her marriage, and Joey's crumbling relationship with his parents leads him to move in with his girlfriend Connie and her right-wing family.
All this is just the beginning. Franzen spends the rest of his novel developing these basic predicaments and putting his characters through the wringer. Patty, feeling guilty about her attraction to Richard, uses alcohol to numb her misery, while Walter, sensing that his wife no longer loves him, considers an affair with a smitten co-worker. Joey, meanwhile, tries to sever ties with Connie after leaving for college but finds that he can't: he loves her too much. Of this, Franzen writes, "He'd had his chances to free himself of her—had indeed, deliberately created some of them—but again and again, at the crucial moment, had chosen not to use them."
One undeniable fact about Franzen is that he's a natural at imbuing his characters with life. Yet this adeptness at creating fully realized people makes Freedom hard going for the reader. His thorough examination of Patty, Walter, and Joey exposes us to a side of the human heart that's hard to look at. It's to Franzen's credit that he's able to write so honestly and personally about their secret desires and long-held resentments, but spending five hundred pages around such well-drawn misery is exhausting, no matter how honest the portrayal.
It's some consolation that the book ends happily, yet what lingers afterwards isn't happiness for the Berglunds or even a sense that all their struggling was worth it. Rather, it's the self-pitying and seemingly futile actions of the central characters that stick with you. Which is a shame, because what Franzen is trying to say is important. Much as he did in The Corrections, Franzen is writing here about human fragility and the power of family to provide love and support. This theme is often missing from contemporary fiction, or if it's there, it's sentimentalized to the extreme. In this case, though, things get so bad for the Berglunds that it's hard to concentrate on anything other than how depressed they are.
What's missing is contrast. Jessica, the "normal" member of the family, isn't developed in any significant way. She shows up here and there, never truly adding anything to the story until Franzen needs someone to stand in judgment over the rest of the Berglunds. Why not put her to more use? The glimpses we're offered of her life—and there aren't many—suggest that she's no better off than anyone else is, yet there's not a trace of self-pity in her. She's forced to forge her own path in life, to be strong, work hard, and keep her nose clean. She has a good head on her shoulders, and it would've been nice to spend more time with a person like that.
Freedom has another failing: Franzen's attempt at documenting contemporary life is only half successful. Fiction that tries to double as sociology is popular today, so much so that the critic James Wood coined a term for this subgenre: hysterical realism. If any book belongs in that category, it's Freedom. By the story's end, Franzen has name-dropped everything from Halliburton and Bush/Cheney to Wilco, Barnes & Noble, Apple, NPR, and a variety of popular anti-depressants. Though details like these help in creating a fictional world recognizable as our own, they never coagulate into anything truly meaningful. They feel hollow and contrived.
It's almost a given that Freedom will be hailed as a masterpiece, in some quarters at least. Certainly Franzen's novel is exuberantly written, brimming with life and passion, and its touching conclusion achieves a rare balance between grand emotion and understatement. The problem is that, in seeking to make Freedom truly his own, Franzen dwells so obsessively on difficult truths that weariness and despair overwhelm every positive thing he hoped to say.
Andrew Welch lives in Roanoke, Texas. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Copyright © 2010 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.