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Books and Culture

Brendan Bernhard
Finding Fault with Freedom
Jonathan Franzen’s new novel: worth reading but flawed.
17 September 2010

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 576 pp., $28)

Jonathan Franzen may be American fiction’s current conquering hero, but he’s no maker of sentences in the tradition of Bellow, Updike, or DeLillo. In a sense, this is a relief: for too long now, we’ve made a fetish of the sentence as something vitally important in its own right, perhaps even more important than the novel in which it appears. In his latest novel, Freedom, Franzen’s sentences simply roll along, performing their notational jobs with thrifty persistence, rarely demanding that we tarry to admire their style or pause to look up a word. On the other hand, their cumulative effect is a bit like a well-made meat loaf: filling, gratifying if you’re hungry—but still meat loaf.

Franzen, who famously refused to promote his last novel, The Corrections, on the Oprah Winfrey show, is a singular mixture of snob and populist. While he has deliberately set out to write novels that will appeal to a broad readership—complete with believable characters, strong narrative arcs, and even happy endings—he’s also a pupil of what Gore Vidal disparaged as the “university novel” or “U-Novel” as represented by Thomas Pynchon. He has learned his avant-garde lessons well and buried them deep inside his reader-friendly fictional garden. The Corrections, which came out shortly before 9/11, was hailed as the novel that summed up the preceding decade. Freedom, which takes on the Bush years and nibbles at the fringes of the Obama era, draws us deep into a family saga whose principal characters are Walter Berglund, a high-minded lawyer and virtuous refugee from an otherwise wretched family of drunken, depressive Swedish immigrants; his wife Patty, a blank former high school basketball star from a Jewish political family whose strength and depth of character eventually come to the fore; and their two children, Joey and Jessica.

The book would suffer enormously, however, without the presence of the free-floating Richard Katz, Walter’s college roommate and best friend, who goes from being a druggy alternative rocker with a minuscule cult following to a downtown New York elder statesman who gets commissions from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Under Walter’s donnish tutelage, Katz becomes a literate, thinking person, but also a raw, dangerous, unpredictable planet in the Berglund universe, wielding a powerful sexual influence over Patty. Richard’s ability to disrupt the Berglund family (at the considerable price of losing Walter as his friend) heightens the narrative suspense of the novel’s first half and upends the second. Though Franzen allows Richard to fade away at the end, he’s a terrific character because, like good rock ’n’ roll, he can cut to the quick of an idea or emotion in seconds. He is the knife in Freedom’s drawer.

If “freedom”—the dominant concept behind President George W. Bush’s foreign policy, among other things—is the novel’s overriding theme, Franzen’s treatment of it appears muddled. Essentially, he thinks there is too much of it—the sheer weight of choice and opportunity drags us down, he suggests, leading to egoism and mania on the home front and militaristic misadventures overseas. Though he’s careful to give both sides a voice in the political debates that roiled the country during the Bush presidency, it’s clear where the author’s sympathies lie, and he spends much time picking out the least savory aspects of the Iraq War for our inspection. Both the narrator and the characters can sound persuasively outraged that such an evil as war-profiteering exists; they can also sound absurdly naive in their outrage that such a thing as war-profiteering exists. The effect is a bit like reading a sportswriter who, instead of concentrating on a football game, goes on obsessively about the illegal gambling taking place on the sidelines.

If Franzen wanted to make Iraq a worthwhile contribution to his theme (the novel’s touchstone seems to be War and Peace), more was needed than a biting sketch of a neocon family together with rehashed journalistic laments about antiquated truck parts and body armor. In what is at least partly another “post-9/11” novel—one not only about family but about greed, despoilment, infidelity, imperial ambitions, domestic political rage, and “the great national tragedy” of that day in September—Franzen attempts no intellectual reckoning with Islam. Over 576 pages, the word “Islam” comes up only once. The word “Muslim” also occurs just once. Yet where did this “great national tragedy” come from?

Compare this with Sebastian Faulks’s recent A Week in December, another ambitiously panoramic novel of our moment, in which “Islam” is mentioned 39 times and “Muslim” 47. (Yes, the Kindle has its uses.) Even a sexual comedy like Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow, most of which is set in the 1970s, manages four references to “Islam” and even the odd idea on the subject: “It wasn’t really a fight between different religions, or between different countries. It was a fight between different centuries.” In Freedom, Franzen does many things well, but surely for a novel that purports to tell the story of America during the first decade of the twenty-first century, such an omission is pitiful.

What is a major theme in the book—and Walter’s pet subject since his college days—is the danger of overpopulation and the need to limit growth in general, particularly as it affects the environment. Human beings, Walter states during an uncharacteristically drug-fueled rant—in Vicodin veritas—are a “cancer on this planet.” Strangely, however, he seems to believe that it is white, rural Americans who are having too many babies, and abortion is barely mentioned. Given that Americans have been practicing this highly efficient form of population control with alacrity for four decades now, at least once contraception has failed them, this omission is also “weird,” as the nonjudgmental Patty might say.

Twinned to Walter’s obsession with overpopulation is his love of birds (a love Franzen shares). Watching a catbird, he envies it “for knowing nothing of what he knew; he would have swapped souls with it in a heartbeat. And then to take wing. . . .” But in an effort to create a sanctuary for one particular species of warbler in coal-mining country, he collaborates with a Halliburton-style corporation involved in the war and becomes the subject of an unflattering article in his beloved New York Times. His passion for birds is matched by his hatred of cats, killers of birds in the millions. Surely it’s no coincidence that his closest male friend, the man who steals his wife, is called Richard Katz, a cool cat and predator if ever there was one.

At his lowest point, Walter becomes a semi-demented liberal environmentalist whose views border on pure misanthropy, yet we’re never allowed to lose sight of the fact that he is, in fact, a good and well-intentioned man. If Franzen deserves at least some of his reputation, it is because he is highly skilled at such layered, harrowing, warts-and-all portraits. Likewise, Patty’s two sections of third-person autobiography, which she writes at the behest of her therapist, are among the best parts of the book.

Does Franzen deserve his exalted status? No: this isn’t American Pastoral. Is Freedom worth reading? Yes. To reverse the famous Mick Jagger lyric, Franzen has delivered a novel that many people want, even if it’s not the one they need.

Brendan Bernhard is a contributing editor to the New York Sun, where he was the television critic from 2006 to 2008, and a former staff writer at LA Weekly. He is the author of White Muslim, a study of converts to Islam in the West.

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