In 2010, Jonathan Franzen released his latest novel, “Freedom”. It had been 10 years since the arrival of his book “The Corrections”, which won the National Book Award. Like “The Corrections”, “Freedom” tells the story of a typical American family, the Berglunds, as they overcome both familial as well as political troubles. But this time, Franzen attempts to document American life during the first decade of the twenty-first century.
During the 1990s, Walter and Patty Berglund were a friendly, liberal Midwesterner couple. Walter was an environmental lawyer with big dreams for the world. Patty was a former college athlete and ideal neighbor, who baked cookies for the neighborhood during the holidays. But their younger child Joey had always been the black sheep of the family, and when he decided to move into the aggressively Republican family next door, the peace of the family began to crumble.
When the twin towers collapse and Joey leaves for college, the repressed emotions break free. The Berglunds now attempt to realize their ideals, and with their failure, the Berglunds question and later abandon the security and high ideals that sustained the family during the 90s. Over the course of the novel, the characters fall into moral ruin as frustration mounts. Patty starts an affair with Walter’s college friend Richard Katz, while Walter joins a coaling company and becomes romantically involved with a Bengali secretary named Lalitha. Joey becomes ever more conservative, finding his own Republican niche in college, eventually marrying the daughter of the Republican family the Berglunds had vowed to spite. And Jessica, the silent daughter of the Berglunds, only can look on and attempt to hold her family together.
As the title suggests, the book’s theme and conflict is how freedom continues to define the American experience and how people’s value of their own freedom affect their relationships. The Berglunds not only attack the ideas, and consequently the freedom, of their political and ideological opponents, but also the freedom of their own family members. And this ideological aggression creates the dysfunction that drives the plot. Only when the characters accept the limits of their ideals does resolution come.
Although the book strives to be a social criticism as well as a family saga, Franzen sometimes becomes too technical. For example, the explanations of the bureaucracy of Walter’s coal company tend to be long-winded, and the actual story is lost. Walter frequently talks of his ideas on sustainability and environmentalism, but these discussions end up being polemical, detracting from the more interesting and more immediate conflict of strained family ties.
Franzen takes on a naturalistic perspective on the story. The narrative voice is mostly objective and straightforward, although the narration sometimes jumps perspectives. One revealing part of the book is Patty’s autobiography printed within the story, which not only gives background into her and Walter’s lives, but also her attitude towards other characters like her parents and her children. The objective narration gives a panoramic picture of the dynamics of the characters, but the tone can be boring, didactic even, as the narration seems to be that of an omnipotent God over the novel rather than an explorer engaging in his material, seeking the hidden corners of the Berglund story.
“Freedom” is not a perfect book, but it still provides insight into not only the politics of the 21st century, but also into the perpetual American struggle of extending the boundaries of one’s freedom. And the optimistic ending of the book gives hope to the dysfunction that has defined the century so far.