Nine years ago, Jonathan Franzen published The Corrections, his third novel but the first to make an impact on the world of American fiction. That impact was amplified by the dustup in which Franzen, selected for Oprah Winfrey’s book club, made abrasive remarks about the club (“I cringe,” he said of the books typically chosen), and was then disinvited from an appearance on her show. As for the novel itself, The Corrections aspired to be, in the words of one reviewer, both “merciless[ly] satirical” and “fundamentally generous and human.” Thus the sometimes mean fun Franzen made of the aging Lambert parents was presumably “corrected” by the final pathos and sympathetic presentation of their lives; while their three children, after getting knocked around pretty thoroughly by the novelist, won through to some kind of dignity.
Similarly, the large, inclusive ambitions of Freedom both “comically and tragically” (the back cover announces) explore the lives of Walter and Patty Berglund and their two offspring, Jessica and Joey. The novel’s title gives away as little as did its predecessor’s—and even less than in the case of The Corrections do we close the book with a comforting sense that any of its characters have “learned” something about life. At first I judged the book’s title to be merely sarcastic, but on reflection I suspect it’s Franzen’s way of refusing to cleverly summarize what Freedom is about. (Think by contrast of Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound or Updike’s Rabbit at Rest.) At one point a character observes, “Freedom is a pain in the ass.” Titles that invite the reader, too facilely, to capsulize a novel’s theme or content are another such pain.
Franzen’s skepticism about capsulizing “meaning” offers the reader instead a freedom that’s sometimes invigorating. After Walter struggles not to betray his failed marriage by sleeping with his captivating young assistant, Lalitha (they are occupying adjoining rooms at a grim Day’s Inn in West Virginia), he cries for a while, “silently, shaking the cheap bed”:
He didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know how to live. Each new thing he encountered in life impelled him in a direction that fully convinced him of its rightness, but then the next new thing loomed up and impelled him in the opposite direction, which also felt right. There was no controlling narrative: he seemed to himself a purely reactive pinball in a game whose object was to stay alive for staying alive’s sake.
A controlling narrative—as in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, to take a consummate example—would sooner or later subject Walter’s confusion to moral clarification on the part of an intelligent and resourceful narrator. Freedom offers no narrative voice that knows any more, or can formulate things any more truly or fully, than Walter himself; Franzen is uninterested in turning the chaos of experience into handsome narrative orders. Certainly no one will wish this sprawling book longer, and on occasion it feels willfully perverse in withholding stories that should have been told earlier (as when, for example, we are suddenly told at some length—near the novel’s close—about Walter’s father’s childhood and his relationship with Walter’s grandfather). The whimsical freedom in Franzen’s narrative impulses will not be corrected by some putatively strong editor (like the one Dickens didn’t have) bent on reining in novelistic excess. Instead, one story just seems, invariably if not inevitably, to lead to another, related one.
Although it would be fruitless to attempt a plot summary—and surely we don’t read Franzen for “plot”—the central action takes up roughly the novel’s first third. In an introductory section, “Good Neighbors,” we meet the Berglunds, who moved two years ago from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Washington, D.C. There follows a long “explanation” of what preceded the move. Patty was a basketball star at the University of Minnesota until she injured herself and lost interest; along the way she admires the unimpeachable morals and intelligence of straight-arrow Walter, and marries him. But then there’s Richard Katz, a rock musician who was Walter’s roommate at Macalester College. It is Richard who rouses Patty’s erotic feelings, a mutual passion that both she and Richard recognize and agree to deny. The triangle is a familiar one, formed from various permutations of love (chaste and otherwise), conscience, and friendship. Patty’s autobiography (ostensibly elicited by her therapist, and set down under the title “Mistakes Were Made”) culminates in the dramatic pivot of the novel, as she and Richard, left together in the Berglunds’ cottage on a lake while Walter is doing nature conservancy work, give in to their passion. When eventually Walter finds out about it, he leaves his wife and proceeds to sleep with Lalitha.
Freedom goes on from here to engage with larger matters in the contemporary American scene, mainly ecological ones; still, it is the domestic-family romance, as in The Corrections, that lies closest to Franzen’s novelistic heart. Indeed, he is as much a novelist of the family, as serious about the rewards and difficulties of marriage and children, as (who would have thought it?) his almost forgotten predecessor, William Dean Howells. For a writer so lively and inventive in his metaphors and so wryly various in his tones, Franzen has a deeply conservative sensibility, full of satiric mischief in cataloguing the dysfunctional family, but just as much concerned to register the marital tragedy in which, to paraphrase Robert Frost, something terrible happens and nobody’s to blame.
Franzen’s command of a language in which to present American and world disasters is more than impressive, and not without its sardonic twist, as when Walter, the man of conscience and activism, orders dinner at a restaurant, perusing the menu and sufferingly connecting it to the larger picture:
Between the horrors of bovine methane, the lakes of watershed-devastating excrement generated by pig and chicken farms, the catastrophic overfishing of the oceans, the ecological nightmare of farmed shrimp and salmon, the antibiotic orgy of dairy-cow factories, and the fuel squandered by the globalization of produce, there was little he could ever order in good conscience besides potatoes, beans, and freshwater-farmed tilapia.
“Fuck it,” he said, closing the menu. “I’m going to have the rib eye.”
For all his idealism, Walter eventually finds himself involved in a mountaintop-removal mining scheme in West Virginia, an ecological nightmare Franzen complicatedly ties in to a rich man’s obsession with protecting the blue cerulean warbler, an endangered species. After the mining scheme goes hideously awry, Walter’s consuming obsession is to do his best, back in Minnesota, for the species and for avians generally; and what began as a novel about the press and pain of individual desire and family turmoil turns political and contemporary in its focus. Finally, in a long coda a few years later, the novel moves away from public back to private, especially in Walter’s lonely crusade to persevere in saving the birds, which incidentally elicits some fine lyric writing from the novelist.
If this sounds terribly flat in my telling of it, it is anything but in the complicating registers of Franzen’s prose, which seems constantly to be discovering things about itself and about the characters he imagines. For all its sharp contemporary comic and satiric energy, Freedom is old-fashioned in that, like the novels of writers such as Trollope and George Eliot, it refuses to grind up its characters, reducing them to the sum of their obsessions and imperfections. John Updike once said that having created characters, he felt responsible for them, grew to like them, and abetted their efforts even in schemes doomed to fail. So too with Franzen. In a world where “depression” is “ubiquitous,” he doesn’t give up on the people who don’t give up—notably Walter, but also Patty, who, after years of separation, refuses to believe their marriage is over. Like Henry James, Franzen has the imagination of disaster, yet succeeds in imagining virtue, and even the occasional limited success.
Recently, Time (August 23) put Franzen on its cover, calling him a Great American Novelist and announcing that Freedom shows us “the way we live now.” We may be tempted to qualify the claim (not the way I live now!), but that shouldn’t keep us from saluting this fine achievement from an extraordinary writer.
Related: Valerie Sayers reviews Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections