Once I heard Franzen had a new book, (I read the two “stories” in the New Yorker) it was all I could do to get my hands on an advance copy. If you know me, even a little, then you know I love The Corrections, which was a book that hit me right in the sweet spot, at a time in my life when things seemed to be coming up roses. Then 9-11 hit, and it’s been downhill ever since.
Freedom isn’t so much “another novel from Jonathan Franzen“, but a whopper of a story about people, some of them are like you and me, others are just unlikable, and I will never understand why readers want likable characters, because Franzen certainly doesn’t give a shit if you like his people. But in reality, do we really like everyone? There is a part of every friend you have that is unlikable, so, Franzen takes that to the next level, and writes entire books exposing those human foibles and flaws.
I swear by The Corrections, and Freedom isn’t too far off from that epic, but it is a little more focused on the bad. Walter and Patty Berglund seem to be running in circles around their life, even on parallel lines, and somehow start a war with their right-wing neighbors, (this was excerpted in The New Yorker) which is very funny, and eventually the straw that will break their back. I don’t think Franzen is trying to spread the cliche of suburban malaise too thin with this couple but he certainly drags them through one awful argument after another. Patty is a former basketball star (Harry Angstrom echoed here) and is given a personality that seems both sensitive and rough, while shaded with insanity, even though we’re given plenty of reasons why she’s so unhinged, some of them glorious in their beauty, specifically the flashbacks that take us to a place where she’s got a crazy stalker friend, and a bad boyfriend (I’d tell you how bad, but that would spoil possibly the best flashback I’ve ever read). Walter on the other hand, I don’t ever really feel like I knew him, or cared to know him. He’s obsessed with saving a dwindling species of bird which means tangling with a coal company and he spins and turns in his attempts to make his mark on the world, while his wife suffers, and then suffers some more. Along comes Walter’s best friend and rock star, shown both in flashback and current time, as a significant member of their love triangle, and a childhood friend of Walters. Franzen dips quickly into the music side of things, and even takes a stab at writing songs, most of which are hits for Richard, and as we follow Richard through his sections of the book, we see him go from nothing to something, and then become so big that all he can manage is a sneer and a couple of unkind words for his fans.
You won’t like Patty, Walter and Richard, as you see yourself in them, and Franzen reflects this as reality, which can sometimes be painful. All this time the Berglunds’ son, Joey, who is really an unbearable asshole through most of this novel, slithers along to make things difficult on his parents and shows us in spades how stupid he can be, and he is almost too painful to endure.
Whip all this together, and I mean really whip it, and you’ve got Franzen’s new book. I waited nine years, (and suffered through more than one crispy collection of essays), for this book. I’m pleased by what I’ve read, entertained and horrified. By the time Richard comes between Walter and Patty, which leaves Walter in a funny spot, Richard alone in Jersey City, and Patty trying to discover her kids after basically ignoring them after they got out of diapers. Patty almost speaks right to the reader, actually I felt like she was talking to me, and like Walter, I felt myself telling the Berglunds to pull their fucking panties up and stop acting like everything is someone else’s fault. As people who know Franzen’s novels will tell you, it’s not always a good thing to see what he’s writing in the life you lead, but it’s hard not to appreciate the grip Franzen has on the pulse of life, even if it is smeared with the unfortunate remains of the people around you. -JR