Having read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom twice already, a novel which I obsessed about even before I have read it, it is easy to know why, despite the critical acclaim, it has been shunned by most of the award-giving bodies, like the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards. Freedom, to heretically paraphrase the whole narrative, is the story of Patty and Walter Berglund, a middle-class suburban family trying to come to grips with mediocrity, infidelity, politics, economic decline and the threat of climate change in post 9/11 America. Patty (who I am slightly attracted to) is a bipolar overachiever who, in a twist of fate, settled for the geeky and population-obsessed boy, after her knee injury which forced her out of a bright basketball career. Walter, on the other hand, is a responsible man and an awkward father, eager to change the world for the better by preserving the natural world and saving what’s left of the Cerulean Warbler. Their kids, Jessica and Joey, are emotional train wrecks, immensely traumatized by their mother’s need to be overtly-maternal and their father’s sternness and self-righteous outlook in life. With an amusing and riveting cast of characters, including the crass and sex-craved Richard Katz, the eager-to-please Connie and the lovely and intelligent Lalitha, Freedom is a precise and beautiful rendering of contemporary American life.
So why didn’t it win any awards? Certainly, Franzen has the knack for language. His narration is evocative, beautiful, oddly poignant most of the time, but intelligent. He’s does not have the incredible vitality and the poetic bravado that Updike has, but his prose can give David Foster Wallace a run for his money (ironically, he did, as they both admit to being rivals, as well as good friends). The novel also tackled all the great themes of present American life: marital strain, the condition of the middle-class, the economic regression, the great republican and democrat debate, the war on terrorism, the post generation-X funk of today’s youth and, of course, the Jewish-American experience. He explored issues of striking relevance, lingered on the issues, and attempted to cover the most important aspects of these social concerns, and he did it eloquently, with interest, so as not to bore any reader. Finally, as with any Franzen novel, his characters spring out the page. I for one, cannot help but fall in love with Patty and all her complexities and faults. I am unable to do nothing but be seduced by Connie’s charm, her alluring personality and unwavering, sometimes foolish, loyalty towards Joey. And I wholeheartedly understand Joey for the hatred he harbored for his family. Freedom is a great novel, worthy of being read over and over again. But the things is, it’s simply too traditional. Besides telling one hell of a story, it is a traditional narrative. It’s incredibly linear, the manner of narration simple, consistent and rooted in the traditional American novel. There are no playful exercises in form and language here. To be quite honest, it actually reminds me of the modern novel, the works of Mark Twain, Gustav Flaubert, and most of the novels before James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. It resembles the “grand narrative,” the narrative which earnestly tries to encompass the entirety of the human condition. The only new thing which Franzen offers is its willingness to address the eschatological subject of climate change, via Walter’s attempts to save the Cerulean Warbler and his other concerns regarding the environment, echoing Frank Kermode’s sentiments in The Sense of An Ending.
With that, is it possible to conclude that Freedom is actually a devolved form of the novel? Maybe it is. Comparing it to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, one gets the sense that Freedom is a bit too safe, a bit too straightedge. With Egan’s chapter made up of PowerPoint slides, its disjointed narrative, its odd sequencing, its erratic point of views and its ever-shifting tone, not to mention its speculative look on music twenty years from now, Freedom looks a bit boring, too comfortable and too unoriginal.
In terms of profundity though, I think Freedom still has it in the bag, but that is my problem. Is fiction at that state now that it’s giving up content for form? Is it giving up the depth and grandeur for the gimmick of form? Are we now wired to think that a good story is simply not enough?