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Franzen’s Freedom

Jonathan Franzen hits the mark with Freedom. Better than a documentary on today’s society, Freedom condenses all ” the unclouded serenity of (the) countrymen’s indifference” with greed, paranoia, and possibilities into a story around the Berglund family.

Franzen exposes the Garrison Keillor Midwest family’s dark side, plunging the characters into a crisis with his first chapter, titled “Good Neighbors.” Obsessed with her cool teenage son and bored with her husband, Patty slashes her neighbors tires when she learns her son has been sleeping with the girl next door. Immediately, Franzen takes you away from this perfunctory attention-grabbing opening scene to backtrack into Patty’s history.

Through the next chapters, Franzen reveals the inner workings of his main characters. In an interview with Lev Grossman for Time magazine, the author mentioned that he writes dialogue by voicing characters aloud.  (Read the article here).

It works; as Patty tells her “therapeutic autobiography,” you can hear her fears, uncertainties, and passions.  Just when a young Patty feels the euphoria of freedom, the gods slam her down, and she learns to lower her expectations, forego Richard, the sexy rock star, and marry Walter, the stereotypical Charlie Brown. You could be sitting in the room, commiserating with Patty and you can’t wait to hear what mistake she will involve you in next.

Through Richard, the reluctant rock star/writing genius, and his relationship with Walter, his anxious-to-please straight man, Franzen does his Swarthmore years proud. Their conversations become fuel for disclaiming all the horrors of modern society and the implications for a bleak future. Comments on the current political scene are blatant and sometimes hilarious in their truths; it’s no wonder Oprah liked the book.

Franzen is more effective in a paragraph identifying our love/hate relationship with eating meat than any of Michael Pollan’s dilemnas.

(he) suffered through perusal of the menu. Between the horrors of bovine methane, the lakes of watershed-devastating excrement generated by pig and chicken farms, the catastrophic overfishing of the oceans, the ecological nightmare of farmed shrimp and salmon, the antibiotic orgy of dairy- cow factories,and the fuel squandered by the globalization of produce, there was little he could order in good conscience besides potatoes, beans, and fresh-water tilapia.

“F… it,” he said, closing the menu. “I’m going to have the rib- eye.”

The sexual undercurrent throughout the book keeps the story percolating with anticipation. Franzen covers all bases: How will the Patty/Walter/Richard triangle resolve? Will Walter succumb to Lalitha, his young nubile and willing assistant? Will Joey ever break free of Connie? While the love interests only add to the story’s movement, the focus remains on freedom and its costs.

Walter’s obsession with overpopulation (no matter that he is the father of two) -and his cause célèbre, the preservation of the cerulean warbler – give him permission to rant about the modern world, and become his excuse for getting involved with corruption.  But, as Franzen notes “there is no controlling narrative” and the characters carry on with their lives, despite the world failing around them.

Freedom is not a book read lightly. It helped that I was bedridden with a miserable cold and could nap when it got to be too much proselytizing about the human condition and the rotten world we live in.   To Franzen’s credit, the characters are so real, you can’t help thinking about them, even when you are not reading.  And the running liberal commentary on the country’s conservative corruptors could rival the Daily Show.

The end is long in coming, and you may long for it afterawhile, but you need to read, not skim, for those succinct gems that make it worthwhile – whether or not you agree with them, e.g.,

“Like so many people who become politicians, (she) was not a whole person…”

“…he’d done what any holder of a PhD in linguistics might have done: become a stock trader.”

“…today’s parents…(who) seem to think her school should be helping their first-graders write early drafts of their college application essays and build their vocabulary for the SAT…”

The ending is satisfying, forgiving, romantic, and realistic in that life and the world go on.   And total freedom from everybody and everything? Improbable – and could be overrated…but not Franzen’s book.

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