So it seems that Oprah has given Jonathan Franzen another chance to be gracious. Back when she picked The Corrections as her 2001 Book Club selection, his various objections to the company he’d be keeping got him booted. But just as the difference between middle-class and upper-middle-class is deceptively wide, so is the gap between middlebrow and upper-middlebrow. Franzen has finally decided which he’s writing—that would be the latter—and he’s obviously OK with it. Freedom is a 21st-century family drama concerned with morals and mores, and while it probably isn’t The Great American Novel everyone’s been holding their collective breath for, it’s A Fine American Novel, and worthy of inclusion in Oprah’s American pantheon whether you think that’s a good thing or a questionable one.
Nine years ago Franzen cited his “inexperience in handling the media and attributed his reservations to not wanting to see a ‘corporate logo’ on the cover of his book.” If nothing else, this year has been his crash course in how to weather publicity, and presumably the book’s heartfelt politics will forestall the need for any more No Logo schtick on his part. Freedom is the tale of an American family, the Berglunds: Walter and Patty, their children Joey and Jessica, and the concentric rings of parents, lovers, friends, employers, and neighbors around them. It’s also a story of how political good and political greed spring from our needy and corruptible selves; I’m not sure I buy it all the way, but Franzen makes his case well enough. For a novel ostensibly concerned with nature, this one is all about nurture.
It opens with a sweeping overview of the young Patty and Walter, told in a neighborhood voice that brings to mind the boys’ chorus from Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, all grown up and still living within a few blocks of each other. From this terrifically promising exposition Franzen proceeds to move back and forth in time, among multiple points of view, from Minnesota to Westchester to Washington, D.C to Charlottesville, with a detour in Paraguay for a dose of corrupt Third World economics (though nowhere near as enjoyably creepy as The Corrections’ Lithuania interlude). He loses some focus with all the shifts—the pivotal sections narrated by Patty are done in a weird middle distance third-person voice, and the conceit that they comprise a real-time physical document, on which the story hinges, is a bit disorienting. At the same time the process of fleshing out the cast is compelling: Patty, Walter, and Joey all become truly interesting over the course of the novel, and Walter’s best friend (and Patty’s on-and-off romantic interest), musician Richard Katz, is a great character. Franzen doesn’t do as well by his peripheral women—the Berglunds’ daughter Jessica, Joey’s girlfriend Connie, and Walter’s pretty young employee Lalitha (the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate is pretty much all you need to know about her) never much get past the armature stage.
This doesn’t seem to be so much an inability to write women, though, as just too many balls in the air. The novel is good but it’s overweight, and overweight for valid reasons. The writing is observant and intelligent about how we live and how we mess that up: parenting gone awry in small, shattering ways; political tradeoffs that make sense until they suddenly don’t; lovers and spouses caught looking over each other’s shoulders at something else in the distance. Freedom is a very moral story. Still, the novel felt like getting into a slightly drunken dinner-party political discussion with a left-leaning Libertarian—each separate argument holds, but when taken together they add up to something you wish you’d argued against more cogently when you wake up the next morning. Franzen has a lot to say, and he says it well. But although the parts all work—I couldn’t point my finger at any set piece in particular that dragged the book down—that doesn’t mean they all needed to be there.
The plot seems large but really it’s not, other than covering a number of characters during a 20-odd year timespan. Patty and Walter meet in college, marry for some right and some wrong reasons, and have children, who grow from neighborhood kids to young adults. Walter, a career do-gooder, finds himself backed up against some serious compromises and screws up; Patty is competitive, needy and short-sighted, and she screws up; Joey is spoiled and self-centered and, with no idea what to do with the advantages handed him early in life, screws up; Richard Katz’s band racks up critical success and a Grammy nomination, so you know he screws up. Franzen doles out his compassion in tiny doses, but that’s not what makes the players tolerable. Rather it’s their refractional qualities—he’s a keen observer of human foibles, and his characters are complex enough to feel familiar. We can’t quite despise them because they are, to some extent or another, us.
This is what’s put the book in the running for Great American Novel: It’s so full of detail and pop culture and contemporary insight that it should hold riches for a lot of readers. A large swath of the population will come away feeling that yes, their lives do have a narrative arc, and it’s all right here. This is not a terrible acknowledgment for a novel to stake its claim on, that kind of recognition. It works as well as anything else. The concept of freedom is woven into the narrative with regularity, but it could just as well have been called Entitlement and been the same book. Its characters, most of whom start out with the scales firmly weighted on their sides—whether by privilege, talent, unconditional love, or integrity—are free to make all sorts of mistakes, and do. Yet in the end they’re still entitled to a certain upbeat ending, or at least one still full of possibility. And as readers? We’re obviously entitled to the same.
The hype surrounding Franzen will eventually die down, and what we’ll be left with is the book we deserve: sprawling and personal and deeply entrenched in its present. Whether it will endure the tests of time is mostly irrelevant—Freedom, as the title asserts, is a fun ride while it lasts.