By Bruce Jacobs

By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($28.00, 562 pp.)

Jonathan Franzen’s new bestselling novel “Freedom” is a long book, both in absolute page count and also in the word count on each page.  It is also a slow book. The writing is dense with long paragraphs of description and dialogue.  The point of view changes as Franzen moves about in irregular chapters and sections.  Scenes are repeated.  The setting shifts from Minnesota to Jersey City to Washington D.C. to West Virginia to Westchester County to Buenos Aires to…well, there’s even a cross-country road trip thrown in.  “Freedom” clearly covers a lot of territory.

Franzen is not interested in the little picture, the domestic love triangle, the “Lord of the Flies” microcosm – he has his eyes on modern life itself.  And if, as an avalanche of favorable (no, gushing is more like it) reviews would have it, he has captured it perfectly; our world is not a particularly attractive place.

The Best Part? It’s a Book

While it is tempting to consider this vision to be the world as it really is, we must remember that it is only Franzen’s world. It contains those characters and themes he wants us to see.

Whether we like his vision or not, “Freedom” is such a media phenomenon that we can’t ignore it.  In the mish-mash of Internet, print and TV reviews (not to mention author tweets and re-tweets) we should remember that this is a BOOK we are talking about here; one that comes at a time when that same mish-mash media has declared books to be already dead meat.

What is it about Franzen’s book that has so touched everyone from your local book club wine sippers to Oprah?

The iPhone Version

Where to start?  Franzen’s fictional Berglund family is a gentrification pioneer in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Walter is the nice guy who finally gets the girl his singer/songwriter/philanderer college roommate Richard coveted.  Patty is a former woman’s basketball star who chooses Walter over Richard so she can reliably give her life to her family and home without too much risk or drama or any sort of time-consuming career.  Their daughter is smart, independent, and no-nonsense.  Their son is a handsome charmer who beds the girl next door at sixteen and, before he graduates high school, moves in with her, her mom, and her mom’s boyfriend to escape Walter and Patty.

Pages and years later, Walter has moved to Washington to run an environmental foundation dedicated to preserving the habitat of the Cerulean Warbler. Patty has gone a bit loony and writes a diary at the urging of her therapist, but still lives with Walter despite his flirtation with his young assistant who rents the third floor of their townhouse.

Meanwhile, rock star Richard (remember him, Patty’s jilted suitor) has moved to Jersey City where he burns out, comes back as a country star, and builds sky decks in Tribeca for modest profit. He still carries the flame for Patty, but sleeps with whatever young woman comes to hand.  He has no family and lives like it. Patty and Walter, however, have not only their two children but also parents, siblings, in-laws, etc. etc. – all of whom appear in the book in some down-on-their-luck fashion and none of whom makes us feel good about the human race.

What Happened to Freedom?

Franzen gets all the details right and doesn’t shy from piling on.  If one wants to know all there is to know about the Cerulean Warbler, “Freedom” is not a bad place to look.

Where he loses me, however, is perhaps where the goings-on in the United States also lose me.  We seem to have abandoned a country where freedom was indeed the very foundation of the culture––where leaving others alone to follow their own dreams or silliness was taken for granted.  Back then:  Who cared if people ate, drank, or smoked too much?  Who cared if they ate meat or bran or Jujubes?  Who cared if they drove big cars, owned big guns, or worshipped in the weirdest of ways?  Who cared where they came from or what they looked like?  That was the country that made us all so proud.

In the good old days of laissez faire, people were murdered, flora and fauna disappeared, sickness and hunger were part of life, wars were fought over and over, and things were never idyllic.    Well, they still aren’t very idyllic despite the increasing efforts of political systems to control bad behavior.  The human race, however, has survived and evolution has played its role as we have adapted.  For awhile in the glorious 1990’s, it seemed the world was moving toward more tolerance.  Borders were more porous.  Totalitarianism was on the wane.  It was a more “live and let live” world. There seemed to be more freedom shaking loose across the globe.

Things have changed.  Franzen has caught this change exactly right.  People now want more political intervention to get what they want and to prevent what they don’t.  We pass laws right and left, all trying to “fix” something we don’t like.  The characters in “Freedom” seem to epitomize this attitude that if we just make people do what we want, everything will be better.  Of course, things in his book don’t get much better, just as they are not much better in the world.

I don’t much like what the world has become; and since “Freedom” successfully captures that world, I don’t much like the book.  Among all the characters on display, I was most attracted to the bit part players like Walter’s alcoholic brother Mitch and Patty’s genius and mentally fragile sister Veronica.  They express no regret for their troubled lives, but also no interest in telling anyone else how to live.  They just live, finding what little pleasures they can.

If Jonathan Franzen writes another long, articulate novel of our world ten years from now, I hope that Mitch and Veronica are the heroes…and that the save-the-warbler fanatics are gone, having accepted the inevitability of evolution:  birds are born, migrate, and die until they change or are driven to extinction…just like the rest of us.

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