Problematizing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

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?

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5 thoughts on “Problematizing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

    • Thank you for your comments. I think people are bawling over it due to the political implications of the novel. Although, as a discourse on politics, it has a lot of faults and shortcomings. And I think, the pretentious title, also helped the buzz around it. It is a good novel though, I think, compared to the fluff that’s being published right now. Sometimes, in some parts, I even find it comparable to the greats, like Phillip Roth and Saul Bellow. But compared to The Corrections, it is the weaker novel.

      Great blog, by the way, and your insights are very interesting. I’ll make sure to add you in my Google Reader. 😀

  1. Thanks for stopping by! You have a great blog as well, which I’ve also added to my reader 🙂

    I understand people are going crazy for the “political” observations in the novel, but those observations are so facile I don’t understand the media fawning over it.

    But you’re right, parts of it are very very good, which probably made me angrier than I should have been.

  2. I think your analysis of the novel is well articulated. Furthermore, I think you are right in closing with questions about gimmick and form trumping what is a damn-good story. But it is not surprising in our current state of society,etc.

    However, one problem I see with the novel is its dependence upon violence. He is clearly making statements against violence throughout, as he explores what freedom means, and at what cost freedom can be gained. Or maybe better, what is freedom. But the entire story depends on a death. It is sacrificial and, in my opinion, violent in itself. The denouement was impossible without the murdering of a character. For that, I find the book weak and lacking in creativity. So, this book troubles me. On the one hand, I agree with your analysis. On the other, I think it gets lazy.

    Having said all of that, I still find it to be an enjoyable story with some poignancy and relevance, despite its flaws.

    • Thanks for stopping by! I actually agree with your reaction towards the violence in the novel. I actually felt severe outrage when I finally arrived at Lalitha’s sudden death and how it eventually affected Walter. Did Franzen just use death just so he could present to us what Freedom meant at the present time? Isn’t that particular technique stale, old, and, to be frank, cliched? Wasn’t there any other way for Walter and Patty to have that resolution in the end without that vulgar display of violence?

      I completely agree with you. On that note, Franzen did take the easy way out. It was lazy. This could very well be one of the reasons why critics are a bit hesitant in calling this The Great American Novel. Although, ironically enough, most of the other “Great American Novels” also dealt with an exaggerated display of violence, as in the case of Roth’s American Pastoral, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. But somehow there’s just something in Franzen that made me feel Lalitha’s demise was completely unnecessary.

      Will definitely read this book again in the near future for further analysis. Thanks again!

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