The Tolstoy of the Internet Era
Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is an epic map of our imprisonment.
If Patty's sensibility dominates the novel, what are we to make of that first chapter? Thatvoice is very familiar, yet too harsh toward Patty to be Patty's own, self-critical though she is. It took me a long time—a lot of underlining, a lot of note-scribbling—to recognize it. This fascinatingly distasteful brew of sneering and sniping and witticisms is the voice of the Internet, of bloggers, of YouTubers. It's the voice of the public sphere. Franzen has always aspired to write novels of his time, and this is a novel infused with the tone of contemporary political discourse, whose basic unit is the rant that goes viral.
The rant even shows up as a plot device. One climax in the novel occurs when Richard's rant gets e-mailed all over the country; another comes when Walter delivers a rant that does, too. Standing before television cameras and an audience of reporters and corporate funders of his bird preserve, as well as people displaced from his mountaintop who have just been given jobs making body armor for soldiers in Iraq, Walter veers wildly off script:
"I want to welcome you all to working for one of the most corrupt and savage corporations in the world! Do you hear me? LBI doesn't give a shit about your sons and daughters bleeding in Iraq as long as they get their thousand-percent profit! ... And MEANWHILE … WE ARE ADDING THIRTEEN MILLION HUMAN BEINGS TO THE POPULATION EVERY MONTH! THIRTEEN MILLION MORE PEOPLE TO KILL EACH OTHER IN COMPETITION OVER FINITE RESOURCES! AND WIPE OUT EVERY OTHER LIVING THING ALONG THE WAY!"
This outburst is so intense it breaks through the fourth wall of the fiction, as if Walter had walked to the edge of the stage and addressed the audience directly. It becomes impossible not to ask oneself at this point: Whose opinion is this, Walter's or Franzen's? But that's not quite the right question. It's pretty obvious that Franzen holds these views, even if the story line loads poor Walter down with other good reasons to go berserk. (His son has just confessed to awful deeds while in the employ of LBI; Walter has just learned that his wife was cheating on him and kicked her out; he just really needed to explode.) The questions I think Franzen asks in this novel, and wisely refrains from answering, are these: "Is Walter right? If so, what should he do? And how are we supposed to live?"
Walter's and Richard's rants will be sliced out of context and passed around the Internet until they melt into the general cacophony, the faceless outpouring of furious or cynical remarks that disfigures the first chapter. Walter and Richard will be left behind, stuck with the burden of being the people who uttered those words and the task of figuring out how to endure their rage and despair. Another of the accomplishments of Franzen's novel is that he lets Walter and Richard—and Patty and Joey—do just that, with tenderness and a compassion that, as he documents better than anyone, are becoming increasingly rare.
Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.