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Bookmarks Issue: 
49-Nov-Dec-2010
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A-FreedomTime magazine recently featured Jonathan Franzen on its cover, beside the title, "Great American Novelist," making Franzen one among only a handful of writers (including J. D. Salinger and John Updike) to be worthy of the newsweekly's proclamation. Best known for the National Book Award–winning The Corrections (2001), the 51-year-old author has penned two other novels--The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992)--as well as the essay collection How to Be Alone (2002) and the memoir The Discomfort Zone ( 3 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2006). Freedom, like The Corrections, is a sprawling family drama and work of social criticism that asks important questions about modern American life.

The Story: In the 1980s, seemingly perfect couple Patty--a former basketball star, housewife, and mother of two--and Walter Berglund, a scrupulous lawyer, move to a transitional neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, and become the "young pioneers of Ramsey Hill." Twenty years later, this enviable family has unraveled. Joey, the sexually precocious son who moved in with his right-wing neighbors as a youth and started a long affair with their daughter, profits from work in postinvasion Iraq; Walter, in an attempt to save a rare bird, becomes morally compromised in his work with Big Coal; and Patty, damaged since childhood, writes a confessional at the recommendation of her therapist. To complicate matters, Walter's old college roommate, womanizing rocker Richard Katz, drops in and out of their lives.

Freedom explores the Berglunds' growing fissures, betrayals, and miseries between the 1980s and the first decade of our century, from the Twin Cities to New York to Washington, D.C. It charts the vague, almost invisible junctures where the Berglunds take wrong turns as their struggles with lust and desire, liberal politics, hypocrisy, and the push and pull of family ties intensify. The novel tracks war profiteering, gentrification, the dirty birth of an avian sanctuary, the rise of a rock star, the death of a sports career, and the ups and downs of a marriage. Finally, Freedom follows the Berglunds' attempts to understand the behavior that guides their daily lives and, of course, their very complicated sense of liberty.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 562 pages. $28. ISBN: 9780374158460

Telegraph (UK) 5 of 5 Stars
"Freedom bids for a place alongside the great achievements of his predecessors, not his contemporaries; it belongs on the same shelf as John Updike's Rabbit, Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, Philip Roth's American Pastoral. It is the first Great American Novel of the post-Obama era." Benjamin Secher

New York Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"With this book, he's not only created an unforgettable family, he's also completed his own transformation from a sharp-elbowed, apocalyptic satirist focused on sending up the socio-economic-political plight of this country into a kind of 19th-century realist concerned with the public and private lives of his characters. ... Mr. Franzen has written his most deeply felt novel yet--a novel that turns out to be both a compelling biography of a dysfunctional family and an indelible portrait of our times." Michiko Kakutani

Slate 4.5 of 5 Stars
"What propels Freedom from the ranks of good novels into that of great ones has nothing to do with plot or political acumen. ... It has to do with Franzen's writing and his ability to evoke character. The greatness lies in the section of the first half that is ‘written' by Patty--the ‘Autobiography of Patty Berglund by Patty Berglund (Composed at Her Therapist's Suggestion).'" Judith Shulevitz

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"Freedom isn't flawless: Patty's journal reads more like Franzen than his character, and he gets sidetracked by quirky tangents. But this is a deep dive into a fascinating family that feels very real, and fully grounded in our time." Thom Geier

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"As in The Corrections, his mission here is nothing so simple: He's not looking for scapegoats but complexity. What makes Walter compelling is his complicated nature; he is, after his own fashion, a good man (whatever that means) for whom life keeps getting in the way." David L. Ulin

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"It's no small feat that the reader keeps thinking, I know these people, and sometimes, I am these people: Walter, a bike-commuting environmental activist, who--now that the neighbors mention it--is a bit too nice, and Patty, his lovely stay-at-home wife, who--on second glance--does seem overly solicitous of their perhaps too-charming son, Joey. ... It's a fair bet ... that if you liked The Corrections ... you will love Freedom." Jess Walter

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"As with his wallowing memoir The Discomfort Zone (2007), the last 300 pages of Freedom become bogged down with tendentious speechmaking and baleful overanalysis of every mean thought that enters his characters' heads." Sam Sacks

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"We've read this story before in The Corrections, back when it was witty, when its satire of contemporary family, business and politics sounded brash and fresh, when its revival of social realism was so boisterous that it ripped the hinges off the doors of American literature. The most anticipated, heralded novel of this year gives us a similarly toxic stew of domestic life, but Franzen's wit has mostly boiled away, leaving a bitter sludge of dysfunction." Ron Charles

Chicago Sun-Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"There's no denying that as a writer Franzen cultivates a slyly superior tone. He assumes the persona of somebody who hardly knows you but still wants to get a little too close into your personal space, asking, ‘You know what your damn problem is?' Freedom is nearly 600 pages of what our damn problem is." Mark Athitakis

Critical Discussion

The Big Theme:
Freedom--or Darwinian Survival?

"One of the ways of surrendering freedom is to actually have convictions," Franzen told Time magazine (8/12/10). "And a way of further surrendering freedom is to spend quite a bit of time acting on those convictions." Certainly, the novel's title announces its big theme--what freedom means to ideology, family, career--and the picture is not pretty. Patty, who recounts the Berglunds' past in a third-person autobiography, reflects that "all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable." It turns out that Franzen, too, thinks that America's obsession with personal liberty is illusory and ruinous. Even more tragic, Darwinian competition defines freedom: Richard and Walter compete for Patty, and Patty and Walter compete for their children's love, for example. Certainly, wrote Slate, "everyone in the novel comes to rue freedom, their own and others'." Many critics thought this leitmotif truly reflects modern American life. But a few called it heavy-handed. "Unfortunately," noted the Washington Post, "the novel doesn't offer its themes so much as bully us into accepting them with knife-to-the-throat insistence." Then again, that kind of "insistence" is Darwin for you.

The Approach:
A Tolstoyan Perspective

"Given his book's scope and its repeated allusions to War and Peace," noted the San Francisco Chronicle, "Franzen seems intent on writing a full-throated 19th-century-style novel--the personal played out against the backdrop of history"--9/11, the war in Iraq, late free-market capitalism, suburbanization, profiteering, wildlife conservation, and gentrification. Yet while his wide lens allows him to use the Berglunds as a filter to explore contemporary America, Franzen keeps his characters' messy tensions in sight and absorbs "Tolstoy's astonishing capacity for [individual] empathy" (Slate). Franzen turns his characters' private lives into public discourse as well: through the Internet, blogging, and YouTube, the Berglunds broadcast their concerns until their "personal crises are thus framed as a microcosm of a national obsession with freedom and global pre-eminence" (Wall Street Journal). Could Franzen, as Slate suggested, be "the Tolstoy of the Internet era"?

The Result:
How Does It All Stack Up?

Nine years have passed since the publication of The Corrections, and almost every critic made the inevitable comparison. "Here's another Midwestern family, another surgical exploration of the spent body and wretched soul of America, another ... inquiry into the paradox of being human," said the San Francisco Chronicle. A few opined that Franzen breaks little new ground with Freedom, and the Washington Post went so far as to call it "stale." Others thought that the novel "sharpens the focus of [Franzen's] investigations, avoiding the excesses of the earlier novel" (Los Angeles Times), and that, more tenderly and soberly, it walks the line between social satire and realism. "Franzen's characters still fail here, and fail spectacularly, but the writer's final instinct, having given complex life to the Berglunds, is now to catch them when they fall ... where once he would have mocked," wrote the Telegraph. Most agreed that Franzen has evolved as a novelist since The Corrections--and that Freedom is equally enjoyable, "equally dire" (Slate).

Critical Summary

"[To] do something new is not to develop a form for the novel that has never been seen on earth before," Franzen told Time magazine. "It means to try to come to terms as a person and a citizen with what's happening in the world now and to do it in some comprehensible, coherent way" (8/12/10). Critics agreed that Freedom, heralded as a Great American Novel, offers a crystal clear portrait of our times, for better or for worse, and that, like The Corrections, it is a sweeping canvas of contemporary American life. Through richly nuanced characters whose large and small concerns we all recognize (from recycling batteries and using cloth diapers to wrestling with values), Franzen delves deep into the disturbed state of American life and its denizens, "confused, searching people capable of change and perhaps even transcendence" (New York Times). They may not all be likable, but they're human. Many critics thought Patty--and her autobiography--one of the most compelling, wrenching characters in recent literature. And there are few prose stylists as masterful: "Love him or hate him ... you've got to admit [Franzen is] an extraordinary stylist, America's best answer to Martin Amis," wrote the Washington Post.

Of course, with a novel built with such great expectations, criticism was inevitable, even from reviewers who professed to be enthralled with the work. A few took issue with what they described as Franzen's superior tone and dialogue, which sometimes "lapses into filibuster" (San Francisco Chronicle) and threatens to undermine the novel's liberal politics. Some also faulted Patty's manuscript, which plays an important role in chronicling the source of the Berglunds' problems, as inconsistent, confusing, and acerbic. A few far-fetched plots (including Joey's involvement with a corrupt, Halliburton-like corporation) confounded others. But most disturbing of all, perhaps, is Franzen's bleak view of human nature. "The only way to get through hell, Mr. Franzen suggests, is to resign yourself to living there," noted the Wall Street Journal. But classic works--those destined to live long lives on our bookshelves--always raise questions about the questions they raise. To sum it up: "If Freedom doesn't qualify as a Great American Novel for our time, then I don't know what would" (Telegraph).