The Tolstoy of the Internet Era
Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is an epic map of our imprisonment.
There's an oedipal theory of history, and of America, at work in The Corrections and Freedom. Characters believe they can throw out the past and create a new reality, as if that reality won't prove as restricting as the previous one and as if the next generation won't turn around and do the same thing. Walter's legal career is thwarted by his ferocious politeness, his way of choking everything down. So is his marriage. "Walter's beautiful rage going wasted," Patty laments, about Walter's inability to end a good spat with rough sex. Patty's and his life together unravels when their son, Joey, rejects it, leaving their house even before he finishes high school and moving in with the daughter of Patty's least-loved neighbor, a working-class woman whose redneck boyfriend has unacceptable redneck tastes.
What passes for freedom in America, Franzen seems to be implying, is a refusal to accept limits, to acknowledge and shoulder the burdens of one's inheritance. Certainly everyone in the novel comes to rue freedom, their own and others'. Patty notes that "all her choices and all her freedom" bring her nothing but misery and self-pity. Richard, the punk-rocker who was Walter's college roommate and becomes Patty's lover, belatedly attains the freedom that comes with stardom and nearly commits suicide; later, he achieves YouTube notoriety for a rant in which he taunts a generation that associates freedom with iPods: "We're about choosing what WE want to listen to and ignoring everything else," he tells the video camera. "Me me me, buy buy buy, party party party. Sit in your own little world, rocking, with your eyes closed." Walter, whose core political message is that we need limits to growth, sees the discourse on freedom as little more than the Republican insistence on "personal liberties":
"People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don't have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can't afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to."
Brilliant as it is, Freedom has flaws. At a certain point in its second half, it explodes into, well, Franzenism. Subplots proliferate maniacally. Joey is taken up by the Zionist, Republican father of a Jewish college roommate and winds up working for a defense contractor buying up rusty Soviet-era tanks and reselling them to the U.S. military in Iraq. Walter and Patty sell the house and Walter takes a job in Washington working for an environmental trust funded by a Bush and Cheney crony that is meant to save a single bird, the cerulean warbler, from extinction. His quest to create a large bird preserve in West Virginia leads him into a perilous alliance with coal miners employing mountaintop removal techniques. And so on.
What propels Freedom from the ranks of good novels into that of great ones has nothing to do with plot or political acumen. It has to do with Franzen's writing and his ability to evoke character. The greatness lies in the section of the first half that is "written" by Patty—the "Autobiography of Patty Berglund by Patty Berglund (Composed at Her Therapist's Suggestion)." It is there that Patty, one of Franzen's two best characters (the other is Alfred in The Corrections), roars to life. Patty is utterly vibrant, sharply sarcastic, unforgettably funny, a mother tigress who can be impossible and can't help being self-involved but who is always fierce. Once we hear her voice, we realize that Patty—her adolescent outrage at the unfairness of everything, her breathless disbelief that people can be like that, her inability not to ridicule everything ever so slightly, and yet, at the same time, her burgeoning self-awareness and kindness and sharp regret—is the force that gives life to the novel. You might even say that it comes to life to the extent that her voice is audible in it.
With the exception of Enid Lambert, a devouring, pitiable, but powerful monster, Franzen has never before created a truly believable female character. Nor has he let his novels be so dominated by a single voice. Franzen's weakness for the flashy aperçu has sometimes smothered the inner lives of his characters. But there is nothing showy about Patty's voice, and he inhabits her fully.
To be clear: Patty's no saint. She's just remarkably layered. Consider, for instance, how she describes her rape at the age of 17, an event that her parents don't seem to care much about and whose full awfulness she only realizes the next day, while crying in the shower, and that even in her 40s, she can't quite wrap her mind around:
This was, without exaggeration, the most wretched hour of her life. Even today, when she thinks of people who are oppressed around the world and victims of injustice, and how they must feel, her mind goes back to that hour. Things that had never occurred to her before, such as the injustice of an oldest daughter having to share a room and not being given [the nanny's] old room in the basement because it was now filled floor to ceiling with outdated campaign paraphernalia, also the injustice of her mother being so enthralled about the middle daughter's thespian performances but never going to any of Patty's games, occurred to her now.
The overprivileged kid's homework-assignment-like phrase "victims of injustice, and how they must feel" is a masterly touch; so is her petty resentment of her room assignment. Her own and her family's childish pettiness is exactly what Patty has been trying for years to leave behind, and her unconvincing jocularity signals her continuing inability to find words commensurate to her rage.
Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.