Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen during Fall quarter for two reasons. First, because Oprah said so. Second, I hadn’t yet been sucked into the “Game of Thrones” whirlpool. Ultimately, Oprah’s advice proved sound, and I feel fortunate to have read this intelligent, thought-provoking novel before dragons and knights consumed my life.

Franzen’s novel explores the tribulations faced by the Berglund family — the quintessential liberal, middle-class white family living in St. Paul, Minnesota. Walter Berglund is a mild-mannered, sexually frustrated environmentalist lawyer whose confident intellectuality often prevents him from changing minds. Patty is a caring, attentive housewife who feels inactive compared to her activist husband and pines for the glory of her time as a star college athlete. Their son Joey wages an Oedipal war against his father throughout the novel, while his mother constantly supports him in his defiance. Joey’s older sister Jessica serves as a mediator between her parents and brother through all of the conflict, loss, and infidelity they face throughout the last decade of the twentieth century.

While I read this book, I was constantly reminded of the fact that I was being asked to sympathize with wealthy, middle-class characters whose suffering was the product of their own choices and privileged expectations from life. However, I was spurred to keep reading by Franzen’s imaginative storytelling and complex character development. Franzen speaks with Patty’s voice in a way that makes me wonder whether he might have been a middle-aged woman in a previous life.

My favorite parts of “Freedom” were those that dealt with Walter’s and Patty’s extramarital affairs. Both Walter and Patty struggle with their unequal desires for each other and with their knowledge that what they seek can be found in the warmth of other people. Franzen discusses their infidelities in a way that neither victimizes nor demonizes either character. Rather, he presents the challenges of monogamy and American family life as conventions to be questions as well as institutions to be valued.

“Freedom” also opened my eyes to the politics of mining and mountain top removal. In fact, reading this book was my first introduction to any sort of information about West Virginia and its culture. Now that I think about it, Franzen presents an entertaining portrait of the diversity of white people in America and the conflicts that divide them. Franzen also demonstrates detailed knowledge of the NGO world and waste and corruption that accompany all well-meaning political activity in this country. Although it is a work of fiction, the silliness of American life that “Freedom” exposes still surfaces in my mind when I see it reflected in the real world, and that happens every day.

“[T]he book would probably be insufferably dull if it weren’t for the fact that it also happens to be a work of total genius: a reminder both of why everyone got so excited about Franzen in the first place and of the undeniable magic—even today, in our digital end-times—of the old-timey literary novel … [however] Freedom is not, by any means, a perfect book…most obviously, there’s Franzen the crank—mighty detester of Twitter, ATVs, and housing developments—who occasionally steps in to overpower Franzen the artist. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether it’s the author or his characters ranting about consumerism, the bloodlust of America’s domestic cats (they kill something like one billion songbirds a year), and the younger generation’s disturbing habit of wearing flip-flops…But if crankiness is the motor that powers Franzen’s art, I’m perfectly willing to sit through some speeches. My irritation with crabby manipulative Franzen is, after all, just a testament to the life of his characters, who are so real I desperately want him to leave them alone, and let them run free.”

– Review by Sam Anderson in New York Magazine

Post submitted by Jacob.

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