The Tolstoy of the Internet Era
Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is an epic map of our imprisonment.
A person who read only the first chapter of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom might be tempted to dismiss it as a pretty callow piece of writing. That chapter freeze-dries the novel's protagonists, the Berglunds, at a moment in history, the 1980s, when they and their kind were still relatively unselfconscious and thus shrink-wrappable. "Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill—the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen on hard times three decades earlier." They drive a Volvo 240, listen to public radio, cook from The Silver Palate cookbook, worry about lead in their Fiestaware, use cloth diapers, fret about maximizing their children's brilliance.
The voice that checks off the items in this yuppie's handbook seems giddy and smug, amused by its own sociological precision. I kept thinking of it as a hectoring presence: that voice. Patty Berglund, says that voice, was "a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee." "There were people," says that voice, "with whom her style of self-deprecation didn't sit well … as if Patty, in exaggerating her own minor defects, were too obviously trying to spare the feelings of less accomplished homemakers." The reader might be forgiven for feeling plunged into a faintly mean-spirited sendup of gentrifiers and overparenters. Franzen himself has called this sort of relentless cataloguing of bourgeois delusions "fault-finding fiction."
The reader of just that first chapter, however, would be wrong about Freedom. The novel aspires to be a portrait of America on a Tolstoyan scale—at least that's one way to interpret the many references to War and Peace in it—and Franzen has indeed absorbed some of Tolstoy's astonishing capacity for empathy. Gentrification and the fetishizing of parenthood occupy the foreground of Franzen's panoramic canvas but have not been reduced to caricature, except in that curious first chapter, which I'll get to later. Rather, they are made to seem like aspects of an urge to nurture that has run amok, two of the many ironies of life under late capitalism chronicled by this exuberant but keenly critical novel.
Walter and Patty reproduce and renovate out of laudable, natural impulses. They love each other, and love breeds babies, and babies need homes. Besides, they want better childhoods for their children than they had, and since Patty felt neglected by her mother, a politician, she wants to be a stay-at-home mom. Walter and Patty prefer the sociability of a city block and want to be environmentally correct to a degree unattainable in the suburbs, at least back then. They try to lead moral and responsible, as well as aesthetically appealing, lives. It is part of the cruelty of the age that their picture-perfect co-existence should not only break apart but come to seem, in retrospect, like willful selfishness.
Reviewers often describe Franzen as an ex-postmodernist who cast off the paranoia and apocalyptic tenor off his earlier more experimental novels— The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion(1992) and embraced realism in The Corrections(2001). But Franzen's so-called experimental novels had plenty of traditional storytelling in them, and The Corrections bristled with Pynchonesque subplots that hilariously anatomized extreme social malfunction. It was Franzen's uncommon range—plus an atomically precise eye and ear for how we talk and dress and do stuff today—that allowed him to register, in that novel, better than anyone had done before him, a shift in American life.
The Corrections, the story of two generations of a Midwestern family, the Lamberts, tracked our transition from an industrial economy (the Lambert parents) to a postindustrial, service-oriented, information-based economy (the Lambert children). Franzen mapped the shift from a moral order defined by the scarcity of the depression to a new order—or disorder—defined by the excesses of the postwar years and particularly by the technology bubble of the '90s. The once-coherent universe of the upright patriarch, Alfred Lambert, and that of his wife, Enid, disintegrates in a way that is seismic, not evolutionary. Their children cannot cushion the dismantling of everything that once made sense to them—not that the younger Lamberts, each derailed in his or her own way, would even want to try.
In short, The Corrections brought us the news about our moral sensibility, about our values, and hugely enjoyable as the story was, funny and scintillating and up-to-the-minute, the news was appalling. The Corrections was a novel of warning. Freedom, which is equally enjoyable, is equally dire. The Corrections, set in the 1990s,measured the gap between Franzen's parents' generation and his. Freedom closes it. The generation that was young and adrift in The Corrections has grown up and has grown-up kids of its own. The Berglunds are not at all like the younger Lamberts—they're neo-traditionalists, for one thing—but they, too, have shaped their lives in refutation of the way they grew up, and now, terrifyingly, they're on their own, and have to deal with the consequences.
Patty has carefully constructed her life to be as unlike as possible that of her artsy Westchester family, which is distantly implicated in corrupt New York State Democratic politics. Her parents never took any interest in her career as a basketball star, though they fulsomely overpraised their other children's minor successes in theater and painting. So, to her mother's dismay, Patty chose the University of Minnesota and a Title Nine basketball scholarship over a fancy private school. Moving to the nonironic Midwest also gave her the means to escape the family tone set by her father, a snarky East Coast wit; all she had to do was become relentlessly pleasant, like everyone around her. Walter, a mild-mannered lawyer, has been equally deliberate in his effort to become an intensely nice person, a dialectical refutation of his father, an alcoholic roadside-motel owner who favors his lazier, dumber sons over Walter.
Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.