My Struggles With Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”

Jonathan Franzen - Great American Novelist?

Immediately after finishing Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” I pulled up the Time cover story on the author. When I initially read the article in August, when Franzen was on the  cover, I had been eagerly looking forward to reading his newest work. So too was everybody else who had access to the Brooklyn Public Library as the number of holds was in the triple digits.  Tonight, I went back to the Time article with the hope it would help sort out of my feelings about “Freedom.” Instead, I came away from it even more uncertain. Maybe I’m being too hard on Lev Grossman, the guy who wrote the article, but it seemed like nothing more than a puff piece.

Back to Franzen’s book, which has received near universal plaudits and accolades. For as big a fan of his work as I am, I’ll admit, I had only ever read “The Corrections.” Though in all fairness, his catalogue isn’t that large. But I loved it. Even though it was a struggle to finish, I thought, even in its most improbable moments, it was well done. It was one of the heaviest books I’d tackled.

All of this leads me to the feeling of utter uncertainty that I was left with  at the conclusion of “Freedom.”

Freedom - Cerulean Warbler on the Cover....Via Christian Science Monitor

It’s all there – the dialogue sounds natural, the story moves along in a wholly believable fashion, and in Franzen’s hands, the familial struggles confronting the characters comes across as both unique and totally familiar at the same time. Even with all this, the America described by Franzen, an America, primarily from 2000 to 2005, seems almost dystopian.  The America dreamed up by Franzen is filled up with thoughtless consumers, knee-jerk conservatives, self-righteous liberals, and the rural poor whose struggle to eke out an existence blind them to the causes of their problems.

The terrorist attacks of September 11 and the American invasion of Iraq are the catalysts for some of the major events in the story. Franzen uses the Berglund family, the clan who is central to story, to illustrate the various responses to the change in the American way of life following these events. The father, Walter, an environmentalist looking to protect a particular species of bird, compromises his political values to reach his goal of saving the animals he loves. His wife, Patty, a star collegiate basketball player, is a stay at home mom who suffers from the crushing emptiness that her life has become. Franzen seems to shortchange Jessica the daughter, in favor of Joey, the youngest Berglund, who becomes entangled in some defense contractor shenanigans involving a transnational search for parts to a discontinued military truck that will be pawned off on American soldiers in Iraq. Despite the differences in these characters and other people who come into their lives, the America they inhabit seems without hope. It is an America where even those who try to do good either end up spectacularly selling out or are blind to the possible good in compromise.

Franzen! Via Time Magazine

I really don’t want to talk too much about the story, in part because of the manner in which Franzen structured the story plays a significant role in the plot. However, I will say this. The book runs a sizable 562 pages. If it had ended before the last section, I would have thought far more highly of the novel. Minor spoiler alert here, but the last section reads like an unnecessary happy ending. Loose ends get wrapped up too tidily. The last twenty pages stand in contradiction to what we have come to learn, as readers, about several of the characters.

Beyond my issues with the resolution of the story, maybe the unresolved feelings I have toward the book, as a whole, is what Franzen was aiming for with “Freedom.” The novel is not only about a family, but about this country. It captures the zeitgeist of the last fifteen years. Maybe this, more than anything about the story or characters, is the root cause for these feelings. As a country and a nation, on many levels, we are still struggling with what the last ten years meant.  With “Freedom,” Franzen is one of the first to try and capture this time in American history. It is worth your  time, but just be prepared for a taxing experience that leaves you with a fair share of uncertainty.

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