Reading a Jonathan Franzen novel is exhausting! This major novel is every bit as big, complicated and long as The Corrections before it. Its premise is rather promising: the teenage son of a committed Democrat couple (Patty and Walter) decides to move in with the Republican family next door. The reasons for this are slowly revealed, but really this event fades into the background as the novel’s trajectory veers off to include rape, corruption, adultery, nepotism, war, depression and a maybe-murder – all against a background of impending environmental doom. Are you sure you want to keep reading?
Like its predecessor, Freedom is what is usually called a ‘sprawling’ family saga. Like The Corrections¸ there is some wild and slightly unlikely international intrigue and all sorts of politics (family, national and international). Like The Corrections it is an easy read in the sense that it pulls you in quickly and keeps you reading till you arrive (somewhat breathless) at the final resolution.
Now for the differences: Freedom has not even one – not one! – likeable character. I can believe the bundle of neuroses and complaints that forms each personality, but somehow the sum is less than the parts… Take Patty, our alleged heroine (or anti-heroine?): early in the novel, as a teenager, something terrible happens to her and this initially engages our sympathy, yet Patty herself is somehow still closed off: her emotions and thoughts are described in great detail, yet she remains rather a cold fish. Why this appearance of coldness and distance when we are given so many thousands of words about her? I think in the end, although intended as a somewhat ‘scattered’ character, she is just too scattered – there’s no central core that the reader can get a hold of and say, “Oh, so that’s Patty”.
Patty’s husband Walter is a Democrats-supporting birdwatching nature-loving environmentalist who seriously loves Patty. He loves her so much, in fact, he is willing to temporarily suspend his passionate anti-population beliefs in order to have two children with her! The struggle between political loves and human loves forms much of the tensions of the rest of the narrative, as all characters assert their need to be loved in the face of overwhelming global calamities that require nun-like devotion and seem to leave no time for personal relationships.
Walter is the voice of Nature, but ironically in order to protect Nature he has to become a particularly frenetic, disconnected, un-natural human being. Machiavellian machinations and political wheeling and dealing partly appeal to him and yet underneath it all the motivation for this dubious activity is the simplicity of the natural world itself – especially the birds! He looks longingly to nature for relief from his own dehumanising lifestyle:
He watched a catbird hopping around in an azalea that was readying itself to bloom; he envied the bird for knowing nothing of what he knew; he would have swapped souls with it in a heartbeat. And then to take wing, to know the air’s buoyancy even for an hour…
It’s easy to know what freedom is for a bird – the freedom to fly around, to not be in a cage – but how to explain the complexity of human freedom? While cleverly displacing his preachiness onto the fanatical Walter, Franzen reveals both the problem of human freedom and the urgent environmental one, along with the depressing unlikelihood of finding a solution to either in the near future.
The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished negative and positive ideas of freedom – ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’. All the characters in Franzen’s novel desperately pursue a ‘freedom from’ their particular demons and eventually achieve it. What happens when they achieve these freedoms is when the novel gets really interesting: they were so quick at escaping their constraints that they hadn’t stopped to consider what positive things they might value. An allegory for American politics? Perhaps.
Franzon also explores how one person’s ‘freedom’ may impinge on another’s – an issue at the centre of contemporary American society in particular:
People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to…
Freedom here becomes a kind of compensatory wealth which many people value even if it kills them. Franzen seems particularly interested in understanding the more loony end of politics in the United States: the defence of guns, of prison rates, of the death penalty and the question of why so many ‘freedoms’ fought for in America are so often purely negative.
In the end, Freedom is a very sad book – sadder than The Corrections – and possibly angrier. Its conclusion doesn’t really resolve anything, but at the very least Franzen has gone on record as indicating, from a global point of view, his concern for the world’s intractable environmental problems, and, from a human point of view, his belief that love solves nothing but is somehow equally inevitable.
Verdict: Rollicking but depressing family saga with the now-expected Franzonian mixture of humour and pathos. Not always fun to read, but definitely rewarding.
Read more: Read an interview with Franzen about Freedom and how he doesn’t believe in the ‘Great American novel’ here: