Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Adult fiction: Book review by M
I'd been curious to read one of Franzen's novels for a while. Having recently bought copies of both The Corrections and Freedom, I started with Freedom purely because the title compels me more.
Freedom is an epic turn of the century (20th to 21st) great American family drama that dilly-dallies heavily in the American dream and national politics of the day. No-one gets off too lightly. Tonally, it has the zip and sting and taboo-shaking that Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap delivered but is geographically and thematically set in a far more expansive American way.
Freedom is about the Berglund family but really more about Walter and Patty, their son, Walter's friend Richard, and not so much about their daughter. From the start, we know that Walter has mucked up big time over ethical environmental issues in Washington, and that this seems uncharacteristic from what people knew about him. The story immediately jumps back and traces, through a third-person narrator and occasionally, Patty, a series of events that led to this current situation. The story traverses about four decades of intersecting and persistent relationships (mostly flawed and definitely obsessive) amidst a vitriol against American middle class politics that raises questions (not so new but nevertheless persistent and deliberately ignored) about motives for war, saving the earth and of course, freedom.
Being somewhat stuck in the middle of the debates about freedom from meets freedom to, the concept of freedom is what drew me to the novel.While always interesting (and especially if you've never given much thought to the un/limits of freedom), I felt that the concept of freedom was heavily overworked in this novel. This doesn't necessarily detract from it still having thought-provoking value for the reader (in this case, moi).
Characterwise, Walter is the most interesting and, for me, wholly likeable. Patty reads like a dull character and I really can't see what other characters thought was so extraordinary about her. No doubt she wouldn't give me a moment's notice either. Her beloved son, Joey is very unlikeable and his whole situation is weird (or maybe the way some things are in real life just don't translate very well to the written word). Interestingly, the daughter, Jessica, doesn't get much textual space in the novel whereas the rest of the Berglund family (and Richard Katz, Walter's best friend) get their own very lengthy chapters, at least once. Arguably, Jessica gets a lot of headspace though. The description of Richard as a cute Gaddafi, that ruined him from the start for me.
It's not often that I think or feel that a novel has a gender, but I think Freedom is masculine. All of the characters feel masculinised (rather than gender indeterminate). For example, Patty is a top notch basketball player and describes herself as a jock. That's great but the sound and flow of her voice felt very masculinised - even the high school incident, which, well.......is alarming. But, what is especially interesting is how all of the female characters are described as super pretty, bar perhaps just one - Jessica. Jessica, who doesn't get the word count that the other characters get describes herself as not that pretty. Every other woman character is drop-dead-georgeous-and-beautiful-in-a-very-pervy-objectified-way. Even Walter's feminism doesn't stretch beyond that.
Did I like it? On the whole, yes but with lots of grumbles. It is an absorbing read (though its chapters are...lengthy). I especially liked the character of Walter Berglund and the final chapter (which is a bit Life of Pi-ish - but more in terms of interpreting the ending rather than the whole story so it might be a cop out but it's very entertaining). It's the kind of novel I'd love to read with a bookclub because there is a lot of stuff to wrangle over.
Publication details: Fourth Estate, London, 2011, paperback
This copy: Mine
SPOILER ! SPOILER! SPOILER!
SPOILER about the ending!
My interpretation of the final chapter is that there is not a happy ending.
This chapter was a story that Patty wrote for/to Walter. None of the events in that story actually happened, in a literal sense. They may of course have happened post-writing but I'm not so sure. I don't think Walter was a big grumpy depressive hermit in the way that Patty portrays it. Then again, The Winter's Tale quote at the beginning suggests quite the opposite........
End of spoiler