Friday, September 10, 2010

Book Review: Freedom

In many ways, Jonathan Franzen is an old-fashioned kind of novelist. While other authors might go for more experimental forms of writing, or shorter day-in-the-life tracts, Franzen has been keeping the embers of the Epic Novel alive. His latest book, Freedom, clocks in at a hefty 562 hardback pages, and, while nominally centered on three members of the middle-class Berglund family, manages to span through four generations and over seventy years of American history through flashbacks and journal entries. 

Other critics have already pointed out the allusions to War and Peace in Freedom. To say that Franzen is the next Tolstoy is a stretch, but it's certainly safe to say that Franzen aspires to continue Tolstoy's tradition. Like War and Peace, the characters of Freedom find themselves subject to historical forces beyond their control, events that they don't quite understand, and they're forced to simply try and live a good life as best they are able. Perhaps the historical setting of the events following 9/11 and the Bush administration aren't as romantic as Napoleon's invasion of Russia, but it certainly makes the book more pertinent.

But even amid the epic scope and multiple plotlines, Franzen's themes remain relatively simple - really, it's right there in the title. In a world where the word "freedom" has become a catechism with near religious connotations, Franzen investigates what effect freedom has on us - not simply the political freedom of speech, but freedom to live one's life unencumbered by the needs of others. It's worth noting that the most "free" characters in this novel, the ones with the least obligation to care for others, the greatest ability to move wherever they please, are also the most miserable. 

While the novel branches off in many directions, the plot centers around the Berglund family - the crusading environmentalist Walter, his wife Patty, who is trying hard to create a Martha Stewart home, and his college-age son Joey, who simply wants to make a lot of money and is getting into conservative ideologies that frequently clash with Walter's. Walter's old college roommate and old family friend Richard Katz rounds off the cast - Katz is an aging rock musician who is receiving the first glimpse of acclaim late in his career. 

This central tetrad of characters is vividly realized, so much that I found myself staying up past my bedtime to continue reading the book. Franzen's narrative is not compelling in the traditional sense - rarely are any lives at stake - but he manages to find interesting stories within these quotidian domestic dramas. In the background, the world rages on - an astute reader will not only catch references to the political events from the past decade, but also a large number of allusions to popular music and Internet culture - but Franzen perfectly frames the Berglund's family problems against these world events, in a way that simply makes for a good story. In a recent interview, Franzen stated his belief that novelists have a responsibility to write not just about the Great Themes of Humanity, but to make their books "really, really compelling." In this sense, Freedom succeeds admirably.

The book is not without its faults, of course. One of the major drags of his previous book, The Corrections, was a weird subplot involving a foray into an Eastern European black market, a section that read more like a comic book amid Franzen's usually realist tone. Freedom doesn't go that far, but another political subplot - this time involving 19-year old Joey Berglund being drawn into a conspiracy to ship shoddy materials to the soldiers in Iraq - does stretch the limits of credulity quite a bit. 

In fact, the central problem of the novel might be its politics. It's not surprising that political ideologies play such a major role - they have been inescapable in America for the past decade - but Franzen seems to have a difficult time dealing with his conservative characters. 

This is not to say that he lets liberals off the hook. On the contrary, Franzen also has a lot to criticize about the vapidity of modern liberalism, which Franzen paints as toothless and inadequate. At the same time, Franzen also seems to criticize the righteous anger of liberals like Walter, who collapse into angry tirades at the mere mention of the Bush administration. Walter lets his anger at abstract politics interfere with his ability to lead a good family life, and it's clear that Franzen believes the latter to be more important than the former. 

But these liberal characters always seem like real people, well-rounded figures with understandable ideologies. The conservatives, by contrast, are a bunch of cardboard cutouts and straw men. A goofy Straussian think tank scholar who doesn't even try and pretend that America has acceptable motives for invading Iraq? A racist white trash pickup-driving hick? A West Virginian drunk who belittles a character for his nervous bladder, and later swears out a couple in public for interracial dating? I'm not saying that there aren't conservatives like this out there, but one gets the feeling that Franzen is trying to paint these characters as real people...and failing. If the liberal characters are well-drawn, the conservatives that the liberals find themselves in conflict with feel like shallow parodies of actual Americans. It's as if Franzen tried to put aside his bias against the Right and failed, or he just doesn't know enough conservatives to write about them realistically. 

Franzen is attempting to write the great all-inclusive American novel. He doesn't succeed, in part because the task is impossible. America is perhaps too disparate to truly sum up in one book, even a 500-page one. But Freedom is the great novel about Americans who vote Democrat and listen to NPR and drink wine and go to private colleges - in short, the kind of Americans who read Jonathan Franzen novels. This isn't meant as a criticism of the book. Instead, it's impressive how well Franzen manages to paint this demographic of the country, even if the other kinds of Americans (almost necessarily) receive short shrift. 

Freedom isn't necessarily the perfect summary of what happened in the past decade. But it manages to paint a very moving picture of four well-constructed characters simply trying to make sense of their lives with as much dignity as they can muster. Anyone who's felt confused or lost in the past ten years, anyone who's felt that the world has gone to hell in a handbasket, or that no one has common sense anymore, will be able to empathize with the characters in this book. It won't help explain what happened between 2001 and now, but perhaps it will help the reader feel a little less alone.