By Jonathan Franzen
I have come late to this one (maybe that's my specialty - I always come late to much hyped authors and books, so I have no need to drown the hype out). It's a biggie. It put Franzen on the cover of Time magazine and got the book and the author finally on the Oprah show. It's a big All-American novel, transmuting America's politics into intimate personal portraits, Republican conservative vs Democrat liberal, the Iraq war and the ordinary American's complicity in it, environment politics. But better still, it is a biggie for me personally. I fall in love with it and its flawed characters.
It is a story of the Berglunds, Walter and Patty. And their children Joey and Jessica. And their parents, Ray and Joyce, Gene and Dorothy. And the third leg in their relationship, Richard, the aging rock musician, Walter's best friend and Patty's girlhood crush who turns into a mid-life affair. Walter and Patty are the typical baby boomers, Walter, the 3M executive and Patty, the college basketball star who turns discontented housewife and mother. Walter is a good man, fulfilling his responsibilities as a good son, loving husband and father. His inner rage and frustration at his dysfunctional parents and brothers are kept firmly in check and is a challenge to Patty, the love of his life, who is unable to do the same. She alienates herself from her family, parents who hush up the date rape she experiences, a mother who does not come to her basketball games she plays so well. She is a jock in a family of East Coast intellectuals and ends up building a suburban housewifey life that is at odds with all that her family holds in high regard.
It's a story that spans three decades of American history. It captures college life in the late seventies, solid middle class America in the eighties and the nineties and the slow creeping moral turpitude of a war mongering America in the next decade.
The politics move into the storyline imperceptibly. Joey is the rebel republican in a family of liberals. He gets involved in supplying faulty equipment parts to the army in Iraq, embroiling himself in the corruption that is the war. Walter meanwhile ends up tainting his moral soul heading a wild life conservation trust built on money made through dubious mining practices. He does it because it gives him the money and freedom to advocate population control, a cause dear to his heart. He further taints himself by falling in love with his assistant, bright, confident Lalitha, young enough to be his daughter. And with an already Richard-tainted Patty, it's a recipe for a collapsing marriage.
Each character is acting out personal roles to freedom in contemporary America. Yet each discovers in his or her own way, freedom is not quite enough. Love, relationships, moral ideals, ideas that possibly tie you down, restrict you, end up being more important. Life has a way of leading you to that discovery slowly but surely.
Patty is the heart of the novel. Her inchoate frustrations in trying to find herself through her roles as mother and wife, her secret desire for the bohemian life with Richard and her ultimate realization of how much Walter really means to her form, for me at least, the best part of the book. Her autobiographical diaries written in the third person at once seem unnecessary (there is so little difference between her tone and the author's) and absolutely critical.
It's a big sprawling book. It delves into each character with such depth and intensity, you are left with a feeling of having lived each of their lives. It is the story of one family, yet it gives the feeling that this is what contemporary America really is. It feels like one of those stories that can be the face of a nation's culture. What American Beauty did in cinema, Freedom seems to do in novel form.
Franzen's voice is not particularly interesting. But his tale certainly is. It's a book to be savoured, immersed in, talked about. It took nine years for him to write it. It has been worth the while.