Freedom by Jonathan Franzen [London: Fourth Estate, 2011] richly repays all the time spent working through its 597 pages. On the evidence of this book (and taking previous convictions into account) Franzen has earned his place in the pantheon of Great American Novelists in the tradition of Updike, Steinbeck and Faulkner.
The novel unfolds the story, over the final decades of last century and the early years of this one, of the Berglunds: Walter, a child of Swedish extraction living in Minnesota with all the stereotypes you would expect from that label on the can, and Patty, his Jewish-born East Coast wife who has rebelled against her own liberal and bohemian family and become a star basketball player on a scholarship. It recounts the lives of their two children: Jessica, proper, conformist, Dad-loving Mum-disapproving; and Joey, independent, rebelling against paternal authority and spoiled by maternal idolatry. We meet and hear from various friends and lovers and, crucially for the book’s impact, have the benefit of these multiple inputs including an opening chapter that sees the Berglunds from the points of view of their assorted neighbours where Patty is a fulltime Mom and Walter an environmentalist and lawyer.
This is a novel and a drama and thus the reader knows there will be conflicts. It is how these conflicts work out in those Reagan/Carter/Bush/Clinton/Bush years in which America lost its moral compass and most traces of a liberal conscience that make this near contemporary account so compelling. Franzen has an ear for how conversation morphs into argument and how dialogues of the deaf develop remorselessly.
After the initial context-placing chapter, the reader is taken forward, backward and sideways in an expanding circle of exposition and development including a section which is Patty Berglund’s own autobiographical account written, she says, at the suggestion of her therapist. We learn more about Richard Katz, a fellow-student of Walter’s who becomes a celebrated rock musician and (why does it not seem surprising) serial womaniser. The way he impacts on Walter and Patty is a substantial element of the story.
The cast of the all-American characters who populate the pages, and the backdrop of 9/11, the Iraq War and the damage both do to the self-image of America and many Americans, create the backdrop against which the principal actors perform. Each character is drawn with sharpness and sympathy and, since the events are still green in most readers’ memories, they have a poignancy that can be very moving.
As these blogs try hard not to anticipate the plots of the books discussed, hoping to encourage readers to come at them fresh, no more can be said than to recommend Franzen’s book and his earlier novels with great enthusiasm.