Nine years have passed since the publication of Jonathan Franzen’s monumental novel The Corrections. That book, a National Book Award winner, remains one of the best and most popular American works of literary fiction of this new century. And it casts a long shadow over any piece of fiction Franzen subsequently chooses to write.
“The disorientations of going from relative obscurity to relative well-knownness were obviously daunting,” the author acknowledges during a call to his home in Santa Cruz, California. Franzen “got involved with a Santa Cruz girl,” the writer Kathy Chetkovich. As a result, each year the pair spend a month in the winter and most of the summer on the West Coast. In New York, Franzen writes in a small, sparsely furnished studio apartment. In Santa Cruz, while school is out of session, UC Santa Cruz offered him office space.
“I have the kind of nature that needs to prove that it wasn’t any fluke, that I can do it again.”
Addressing the personal impact of the success of The Corrections, Franzen says, “I have the kind of nature that needs to prove that it wasn’t any fluke, that I can do it again. So the pressure from the outside was combined with an enormous internal pressure.”
The pressure has served Franzen extremely well. His new novel, Freedom, is different from The Corrections but is, in its own way, as good as its predecessor. The novel concerns the travails of the Berglunds, a seemingly perfect, progressive, middle-class family whose lives fall apart shortly after 9/11.
Freedom is a sort of contemporary epic, part tragedy and part comedy, whose basic story is swiftly outlined in the novel’s pitch-perfect opening section, “Good Neighbors,” part of which appeared in the New Yorker. There we meet the young Berglunds, early gentrifiers of the Ramsey Hill section of St. Paul, Minnesota. Patty, a former college basketball star, is a self-deprecating, “sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen,” so devoted to parenting her children Jessica and Joey as to excite envy among her neighbors. Walter, a “generous and smiling” young lawyer who rides a commuter bike to work and spends weekends rehabbing the family’s Victorian, is thought by neighbors to be “greener than Greenpeace.”
The first fissure in the family façade develops as their entrepreneurial and surprisingly self-possessed son Joey rebels against his father’s authority, then falls in love with the girl next door, the daughter of a jilted mistress of a local politician, and finally moves out of the Berglund household and into the considerably more conservative and lower-class home of his girlfriend. By the time Joey finally heads off to college, the family is in tatters. They leave St. Paul and head to Washington, D.C., where Walter has taken a job with a foundation devoted to saving the habitat of the Cerulean Warbler, whose sole funding comes from an energy magnate named Vin Haven—who is, as it turns out, a close associate of Vice President Dick Cheney.
The remainder of the novel drills deeper into the family’s frustrations, competitions and betrayals, and the moral and political compromises that divide these family members and their friends and lovers. Franzen’s characters are not entirely likable people, and there is more than enough sadness and disappointment to make Freedom a difficult book to read. And yet, through the sheer force of Franzen’s abilities—his mastery of tone and voice, his sharp understanding of family dynamics and his subtle sense of humor—Freedom rings with meaning and pulses with recognizable contemporary life. In the end, the novel is oddly and surprisingly uplifting.
In conversation, Franzen is extremely reluctant to speak about his weighty novel’s multiple levels of meaning. It’s as if he doesn’t want to intrude upon a reader’s freedom to decide for herself. Asked what he’d like readers to think about when they finish reading Freedom, he demurs, saying, “I’m just hoping people have an experience with the book. I want the pages to turn without effort. I think that’s probably more important than ever. Because we are competing with so many other media, the challenge is to try to do something interesting and halfway serious, within the context of easily distracted people. I mean, I am an easily distracted reader. If the book’s not doing it, there are a lot of other things I could be doing.”
On the other hand, Franzen is astonishingly, even courageously forthcoming about the personal demons that at some subterranean level inform Freedom.
“Even though The Corrections drew directly on some experiences I had when my father was dying,” Franzen says, “it didn’t get into the real stuff with me and my parents, and it steered entirely clear of my rather long marriage. Even though there’s nothing in the new book that actually happened to me—there’s not a scene, there’s not an incident that is from my own life—to go a little way into the shameful heart of my fraught relationship with my mom, to go a little way into the kind of things, again shameful, that happen in a long marriage, was really the core adventure.”
“And I might also say that not having kids was something I was dealing with in the years when the book was coming together. Specifically it manifested itself in a kind of rage against young people t[Wed Dec 11 01:55:57 2013] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. hat I was feeling some years ago. So it was important for me to try to create a young character [Joey] who I could love and forgive—if only to be rid of an anger that I knew really had nothing to do with its object.”
Then there is the thread of Franzen’s political and environmental anger. “I’m an old environmental writer,” Franzen says “Yet the environment is just about the hardest thing there is to write about. The news is bad, and your rhetorical options are either to shrilly and unrealistically decry what other people are doing, or to guiltily and despairingly acknowledge what is happening. Neither of those make for good fiction. So I wanted a character [Walter] who might be lovable for other reasons, who could also embody some of the environmentalist rage that I was certainly feeling during the Bush years and am certainly feeling now with what’s happening in the Gulf.”
Yet the wily, manipulative energy baron Vin Haven is, in Franzen’s characterization, a pretty good guy. “It’s very hard to make fiction out of political anger,” he explains. “When you’re speaking politically, you really can’t allow in the possibility that you are the problem. But of course we are all the problem. The flip side of that is that the people we see as the problem in our political way of thinking are also people too.”
Franzen’s adherence to the dictates of good fiction at the expense of ideology is embodied in a set of psychologically, morally and, yes, politically complex characters. The novel, he says, “only took a year to actually write the pages. The eight years preceding that were spent coming up with interesting, difficult characters who I could nonetheless love.”
Whether readers will also love these characters remains to be seen, but they will certainly appreciate Franzen’s ability to transmute the dross of contemporary American life into the gold of Freedom.
Want more on Freedom? Check out Alden Mudge's 'behind the interview' blog post.
Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.
The epic sprawl of this ambitious yet ultimately unsatisfying novel encompasses everything from indie rock to environmental radicalism to profiteering in the Middle East.
The first novel from Franzen in almost a decade invites comparisons with its predecessor, The Corrections, which won the 2001 National Book Award and sparked controversy with Oprah. Both are novels that attempt to engage—even explain—the times in which they transpire, inhabiting the psyches of various characters wrapped in a multigenerational, Midwestern family dynamic. Yet the plot here seems contrived and the characters fail to engage. The narrative takes the tone of a fable, as it illuminates the lives of Patty and Walter Berglund, politically correct liberals who have a seemingly idyllic marriage in Minnesota, and their two children, who ultimately find life way more complicated than the surface satisfaction of their parents had promised. Through flashbacks, chronological leaps and shifts in narrative voice (two long sections represent a third-person autobiography written by Patty as part of her therapy), the novel provides the back stories of Patty and Walter, their disparate families and their unlikely pairing, as the tone shifts from comic irony toward the tragic. Every invocation of the titular notion of "freedom" seems to flash "theme alert!": "He was at once freer than he'd been since puberty and closer than he'd ever been to suicide." "She had so much free time, I could see that it was killing her." "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." "But it didn't feel like a liberation, it felt like a death." Such ideas seem a lot more important to the novelist than the characters in which he invests them, or the plot in which he manipulates those characters like puppets. Franzen remains a sharp cultural critic, but his previous novels worked better as novels than this one does.
If "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" (as Kris Kristofferson wrote), this book uses too many words to convey too much of nothing.Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
"Use Well Thy Freedom": this motto, etched in stone on a college campus, hints at the moral of Franzen's sprawling, darkly comic new novel. The nature of personal freedom, the fluidity of good and evil, the moral relativism of nearly everything--Franzen takes on these thorny issues via the lives of Walter and Patty Berglund of St. Paul. With two kids, a Volvo in the garage, and a strong social conscience, the Berglunds allow their good deeds to be tinged with just a hint of smugness (which eventually comes back to haunt them). Weaving in and out of their lives is old college friend Richard Katz, low-level rock star and ultra-hip antihero. Time goes by, the kids grow up, betrayals occur, and the thin line between right and wrong blurs. Fully utilizing their freedom--to make mistakes, confuse love with lust, and mix up goodness and greed--the Berglunds give Franzen the opportunity to limn the absurdities of our modern culture. Granola moms, raging Republicans, war profiteers, crooked environmentalists, privileged offspring, and poverty-bred rednecks each enjoy the uniquely American freedom to make disastrous choices and continually reinvent themselves. VERDICT As in his National Book Award winner, The Corrections, Franzen reveals a penchant for smart, deceptively simple, and culturally astute writing. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/10.]--Susanne Wells, P.L. of Cincinnati & Hamilton Cty.[Page 68]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.
Nine years after winning the National Book Award, Franzen's The Corrections consistently appears on "Best of the Decade" lists and continues to enjoy a popularity that borders on the epochal, so much so that the first question facing Franzen's feverishly awaited follow-up is whether it can find its own voice in its predecessor's shadow. In short: yes, it does, and in a big way. Readers will recognize the strains of suburban tragedy afflicting St. Paul, Minn.'s Walter and Patty Berglund, once-gleaming gentrifiers now marred in the eyes of the community by Patty's increasingly erratic war on the right-wing neighbors with whom her eerily independent and sexually precocious teenage son, Joey, is besot, and, later, "greener than Greenpeace" Walter's well-publicized dealings with the coal industry's efforts to demolish a West Virginia mountaintop. The surprise is that the Berglunds' fall is outlined almost entirely in the novel's first 30 pages, freeing Franzen to delve into Patty's affluent East Coast girlhood, her sexual assault at the hands of a well-connected senior, doomed career as a college basketball star, and the long-running love triangle between Patty, Walter, and Walter's best friend, the budding rock star Richard Katz. By 2004, these combustible elements give rise to a host of modern predicaments: Richard, after a brief peak, is now washed up, living in Jersey City, laboring as a deck builder for Tribeca yuppies, and still eyeing Patty. The ever-scheming Joey gets in over his head with psychotically dedicated high school sweetheart and as a sub-subcontractor in the re-building of postinvasion Iraq. Walter's many moral compromises, which have grown to include shady dealings with Bush-Cheney cronies (not to mention the carnal intentions of his assistant, Lalitha), are taxing him to the breaking point. Patty, meanwhile, has descended into a morass of depression and self-loathing, and is considering breast augmentation when not working on her therapist-recommended autobiography. Franzen pits his excavation of the cracks in the nuclear family's facade against a backdrop of all-American faults and fissures, but where the book stands apart is that, no longer content merely to record the breakdown, Franzen tries to account for his often stridently unlikable characters and find where they (and we) went wrong, arriving at--incredibly--genuine hope. (Sept.)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.