Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is an epic map of our imprisonment.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 30 2010 6:45 AM

The Tolstoy of the Internet Era

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is an epic map of our imprisonment.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.

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