Picador 2011 pp608
Reviewer Lynda Hedley
While many of us agonise about the meaning of freedom, not to mention the practice of freedom, Jonathan Franzen describes our traps – our internal prisons and how we inherit them, pass them down to other generations and other people, people we know and even people we don’t. The questions such as the freedom to love, to hate, to give life to, to protect or to collude with arise constantly through the eyes of characters in a family struggling with their dissatisfaction with themselves, their friends and relationships.
Patty, a suburban housewife, is married to Walter, the man whose patience and loyalty she couldn’t resist when they were both younger and whom she married out of pity rather than desire. At college Patty was a brilliant athlete, but a sports injury left her unable to compete. Walter, her devoted husband idealises her as his life partner, is lost in eco-idealism and a naïve, earnest self-righteousness about human relationships. He cannot act with spontaneity and, at the expense of his own needs and values, when he falls in love again with a young woman who convinces him of how lovable he can be he is thrown into a frenzy of conflict and guilt.
They have two children, Joey and Jessica. For unknown reasons, Patty blatantly ignores her daughter, who in turn self-actualises with admirable and magnificent self-sufficiency. Jessica plays a lesser part in the story, always seeming to be an exemplar of good sense and balance, and while she experiences a disinterested mother in Patty, her father adores her. Her alliance with him frees her mother somewhat of parental duties, but there is no obvious indication of resultant deprivation. Free of her daughter, Patty puts all her energy into her son Joey, who doesn’t appreciate this. Instead, he develops an interest in the family next door, a family to whom his mother has never taken.
Joey escapes his parents and gets involved with an emotional wreck of a girl, Connie, the girl from next door. After an irreconcilable row with his mother, Joey moves in with Connie and her parents. Connie’s wily sexual instincts draw him into situations of unsatisfying hedonism and co-dependence that lead nowhere. Franzen depicts this girl as a submissive victim of others’ wishes, a masochist who, when things go bad, starts cutting her arms with a razor. It seems her only ambition in life is to retain Joey as her lover and she works out a successful strategy to achieve her wishes. For example, when he doesn’t agree with her, she imposes blackmailing silences. This works. Joey is unnerved by these and always capitulates. Over some years, Franzen shows this couple as perversely and strangely bonded in a neurotic and unhealthy union. Joey tries to escape her when he departs to university. Instead, they get married. Later, obsessed with obtaining wealth, Joey goes right off the tracks in a business deal supplying substandard vehicle parts to a trader working in Iraq for the US army. Greed trumps morality and Franzen shows how lucrative is war mongering and how frail the human psyche when it comes to material gain.
The trappings of these characters are summed up in the charmless and nomadic character, Richard, whom Franzen nearly always refers to as Katz, his surname. He is a close friend of Walter and becomes a catalyst for trouble between Patty and Walter. To them, he represents peer loyalty and unbridled emancipation. However, Richard seems to be simultaneously in awe and in contempt of Patty and Walter, both attracted to and jealous of them. Franzen describes him as largely led by his penis, a rudder through his life, a compass to guide his direction. But at the same time, he shows authenticity that he flaunts in your face whether you like it or not. He says what he thinks and takes what he wants.
Richard is involved with both Patty and Walter in different and secret ways and, over a period of twenty years, he develops relationships with both which turn out to be destructive for all three. His drive to be free and authentic leads him into periods of great depression, addiction and loneliness, much like his contemporaries. A mass of contradictions and self-righteous indignation, Richard finally disappoints; he succumbs to convention by falling in love and settling down. A more satisfying ending would have been to have him die a dramatic death like Kurt Cobain.
Patty and Richard experience an unusual but destructive sexual attraction, but Richard is not a person who can commit to a peaceful provincial life, so Patty marries Walter. As a housewife, Patty is classically bored with her life, attempts always to put her own and others’ extreme views in moderation and denies herself the chance to express the real Patty and the past rage that she felt as a teenager. Restrictions imposed upon her in her youth repeatedly emerge in her adult life, and it is these, and her relationship with Walter, that cause her to experience slow suffocation over 40 years; suffocation of her ambitions and desires and her inability to allow herself the luxury of free thought and action as enjoyed, it appears, by Richard.
Patty’s demise is met when she finally realises the extent of her lack of interest in her husband and her obsession with Richard. She cannot have either or both. Her choice leaves her lonely and desolate. Her final choice, to try to win the now lost Walter back, is, like the final choice of Richard, unsatisfying and unconvincing. It is a sad moment, she made a risky decision and it almost costs her life. Although this seemed to me unlikely, what she decided to risk, her life, illustrated her desperation, loud and clear.
What Franzen shows us repeatedly is that living in the ‘Land of the Free’ is in reality a contradiction; the reality is so far from the truth as to be as impossible to grasp as the theory of infinite space. The period of time described by Franzen rushes by from post-war baby-boomer America to the first inland attack on New York by Bin-laden and onwards into modern day economic failure and the Iraq war. It jumps from one time zone to another, showing us through the political and personal experiences of Franzen’s characters how elusive is political freedom and how, unless one sacrifices community, democracy and integrity, true personal freedom is both an impossible and an undesirable achievement.
Franzen shows us the human need to bind, to tie down; he also shows the emotional and political shackles and desires for emancipation and the struggle for this in relationships that cling and constrict, suffocate and destroy. His use of language is up-to-date and marks the changes in societal inventions and behaviours, such as the recent use of mobile telephones and texting. Franzen has knowledge, too, of teen-speak and acronyms such as MILF, terms that illustrate his advanced research into slang and teen culture.
It is difficult not to compare Freedom with his earlier tome, The Corrections (2001), since they have similarities; both are in-depth explorations into the characters of families based in contrasting areas, the Mid-West and the cities of NYC and Philadelphia; both raise huge political issues (saving the birds in Freedom, saving the mind in The Corrections); and both expose the evils of unopposed, revered greedy behaviour in the affluent, capitalist world. Freedom, although a page-turner and written with flair and repetition that never bores, is less riveting than The Corrections, although it is an amazingly good read; in both it is easy to identify with the characters, see your own reflection in them, recognise your own family members and all their complexities and neuroses. It is questionable whether or not you want that, but compensation is found in The Corrections – it is a comedic and farcical depiction of ageing and its outcomes. If you were to read both tomes for the first time, I would recommend reading Freedom first. Between the two, that amounts to 1,130 pages in total. Franzen had a lot to say.