I know Jonathan Franzen chiefly by his being the only author on the planet to have stiffed Oprah Winfrey. Not very smart, I thought, whatever his reasons. But that didn’t seem to have hurt his sales on that book, Corrections, or his excellent reviews. And now comes another really fat book from the same author. “Can he do it again?” the critics wondered. I mean, once you write one fine book, the creativity needed to produce the next one often seems to get stuck in the flotsam and jetsam of the first.
The answer is, yes, he did it again. Though I didn’t read Corrections, and I hesitate these days to read anything over 350 pages, I read all 562 pages of Freedom and found it fascinating. It is about our crazy, life-denying culture. It is about people I know. Ultimately, it is about me (sigh).
The title Freedom is perfect, for all the characters are floating loose in a sea of freedom, awash in freedom–but with little notion of how to handle it to their advantage. In a culture with no controlling narrative, no compelling story to guide us, we have to discover the meaning of our lives by trial and error. And for all of the characters in Freedom, there’s plenty of experimentation and plenty of error and all the suffering that goes with it. Patty is free to have an affair with her husband Walter’s best friend, Richard; Walter is free to fall in love and mate with his much younger assistant, Lalitha; their son Homer is free at age 16 to move in with the girl next door; the people next door are free to build a very, very ugly addition onto their home; and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.
We watch in wry amusement as these characters stumble through their lives; nevertheless, we come to love them in their helpless thrashings about. Like us, they can’t see their way so clearly. Like us, they are moved by forces they hardly understand. Like us, they have some honor, they try to do what is right, and often fail. They suffer mightily. Like us.
Each of the three main characters was fascinating to me, because I know people like them: Patty, the perfect mom, who is making cookies for all the neighbors, and dying inside; Walter, the liberal do-gooder who naively sells out to the corporation; Richard, the gifted musician who speaks clearly, with great integrity, but is supremely cynical about his fans and the world in general. Not only do I know people like them, but there is a part of each one of them in me. In the end, they seem to learn and grow from their suffering. Sometimes, yes, that happens.
Questions emerge about marriage and relationship. What is love, anyway? Patty wonders what sexual chemistry has to do with it–she wants to desire someone more than she desires her husband, Walter. Does “the movement in his pants” define love, as Richard believes? Are Walter and Lalitha true “soul mates,” because sex and work blend into a life for them? How do kids fit in? When Patty finds she misses Walter and wants him back, does that mean she loves him? Is love just the history they share? Does she lose her concern with desire as she ages? How does Walter come to forgive Patty and love her once again? How does Richard reconcile his anger with the world as it is, and settle into a relationship?
One of the encouraging aspects of the book is the author’s perspective on young people. The Berglund children, Homer and Jessica, seem to have their heads on straight, more or less. And Lalitha, the young Indian woman who works with Walter, is all business when she needs to be, and yet loves deeply and well. Is Franzen hopeful about the next generation? Have they learned from our folly? I guess the question for me is whether or not our young people can be sustained, with parenting as uneven and values as shaky as those received from their elders.
I want to speak to the style of the book. It’s all plot-driven. You simply read about what people do, by themselves and with one another. Descriptions are cut to the bone, and the reader does not have to languish in paragraphs of self-conscious purple prose–or even clever phrases that draw attention to themselves. Franzen allows us to just be there with the characters and forget about him and his craft–as of course, the best writers are able to do.
This is a book that makes me want to talk about it. It is rich not so much with answers, but rich with the most pertinent questions of our time. What makes a good life? What gives meaning, ultimately? How do men and women choose one another, and partner well? What is our responsibility to the larger culture, as the powers that be ravage the environment and misuse people? How do we know when we are doing the right thing, and not just more of the wrong? Read it, and get a group of your friends to read it, and let us consider our lives.