Book #19 for 2011: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Several months ago, a friend of mine wondered out loud what the difference is between a popular novel and a literary novel. I had some sort of response at the time that I don’t completely recall, but I think it had to do with the relative importance of plot and character. Although it’s hard to imagine a novel that could exist without both of those things, popular novels tend to emphasize the former and literary novels tend to emphasize the latter. I think now, having thought about it a bit, I’d go further and say that, in literary fiction, plot exists to illuminate character while, in popular fiction, character exists to motivate plot. It’s an imperfect distinction — What if a novel does both things simultaneously? What if instead of plot it emphasizes theme? — but I think it’s a valid one.
So, by that measure, is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom a popular novel or a literary novel? It certainly has plot. In fact, it has so much of it that I’d despair of trying to summarize it in fewer words than Franzen used to write the novel itself (which, having gotten fairly good over the years at estimating these things, I’d put in the vicinity of 200,000). But it also has characters and they’re as vividly illuminated and three-dimensionally real as any characters I’ve read about during my last year and a half of frantic reading, maybe as vividly illuminated and three-dimensionally real as any characters I’ve read about ever. On that count, I think I can safely say that Freedom is a literary novel, a very entertaining, incisive, witty and ultimately rather moving one.
The four major characters, the ones who are given viewpoint chapters throughout the book, are Patty and Walter Berglund, a pair of yuppy-ish late baby boomers who were probably born around the same time as Franzen himself (which would be in 1959); their mutual friend Richard Katz, a rock musician who feels passionately about both of them, albeit in rather different ways; and their son Joey, who feels obligated to rebel against his parents in his mid-teens by moving in with the girl next door who adores him and by rejecting their liberal politics shortly after he gets to college.
While the plot of the book is too sprawling and complex to describe, I think I can rather neatly sum up what I’m pretty sure is Franzen’s theme, the one that’s inherent in the title. Freedom is something that Franzen clearly feels ambivalent about, or at least his characters do, and one suspects that were you to engage him on the subject at a party he might warn against an excess of it. As young Joey puts it about halfway through the book, “Freedom is a pain in the ass.” Freedom, or free will, is an important gift that life bestows on human beings, but those people who are the happiest seem to be those who dispose of as much of it as possible as quickly as they can. This includes the larger freedoms, like the freedom of corporations to grow without limits and destroy the environment and the freedom of people to breed until the planet is denuded by their consumption of resources; and the smaller freedoms, like the freedom of domestic cats to attack and kill birds who are evolutionarily unprepared for their predation and the freedom of human beings to live their lives unencumbered by a committed relationship to someone they love and who loves them back. It’s Walter, the driven, neurotic, environmentally conscious liberal, who inveighs against most of those freedoms, but pretty much everybody in the book has problems with that last one.
Surprisingly it’s Joey, the initially self obsessed and overly entitled son, who has an epiphany about that last freedom during a darkly comic and rather disgusting scene where he retrieves, through obvious methods, a wedding ring that he accidentally swallowed a couple of days earlier. He realizes that if he was willing to take such desperate and dire measures to retrieve the symbol of his youthful and rather impulsive marriage, which he was prepared to throw away on a meaningless sexual fling with the beautiful but shallow sister of his college roommate, that the only choice open to him is to throw away his freedom to have meaningless sexual flings altogether and make an absolute commitment to his marriage — and it’s at that moment, when he removes his own freedom, that he finally becomes happy.
It takes his parents, Walter and Patty, a lot longer to come to terms on this particular issue and I won’t tell you how their troubled marriage turns out, but there was a bit of a tear in my eye at the end. Franzen’s writing is so sharp and witty that what could be a rather dreary novel about people reaching out for happiness and not infrequently screwing up their chances of finding it is never for a moment depressing. Actually, it’s quite delightful. I had trouble warming to the characters in the beginning — self-obsessed yuppies have never been of great interest to me, maybe because they remind me too much of myself — but Franzen’s characters eventually won me over. I wish Franzen had spent more time on Richard the rock musician, a character I think was full of unrealized possibilities (and whose difficulty in finding a compromise between his need for committed love, his loyalty to a friend, and his profound sexual urges could be the subject of an entire novel in itself), but Richard ends up mostly being a device for setting up conflict between Patty and Walter and within Patty herself. Which, once I finally warmed to Patty’s somewhat-difficult-to-like character, was fine with me.
This novel received a remarkable amount of press last year and that’s fine with me too. It’s an extraordinary achievement and there were many times, perhaps several per page, when Franzen’s insights into his characters (and his ability to express those insights in highly readable prose that often borders on being laugh-out-loud funny) impressed the hell out of me. Even my literary idol Philip Roth, back in his heyday (which some people would say is still going on but which I would place in the late 60s through mid-80s) was never quite this good at looking at human beings with so sharp and satirical an eye, though he came close. And I can think of no higher praise than to say that, if forced to choose whether Franzen or Roth were the better writer, I might just go with Franzen.