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by Jonathan Franzen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 2010 | 562 pages | $28.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

janathan franzen

     Weird, isn’t it?  You’re reading Jonathan’s Franzen’s new novel Freedom, kicking into a pleasant reading groove, when you start to recognize yourself--specifically the way you talk—in the main character, Patty.  Scary.  Especially when you begin to understand why Patty talks this way, using slang and the word “weird” to undercut what others are saying and to convey everything from lethargy to anger.   “Weird” isn’t the correct word to use at all, it’s a misnomer in fact, but using the word only fuels Patty’s disdain for those around her (“they wanted sociopathic, they wanted passive-aggressive, they wanted bad.  They needed Patty to select one of these epithets and join them in applying it to Carol Monaghan, but Patty was incapable of going past “weird”).

     She’s maddening to be around and she knows it, but she flaunts her disregard by sealing herself up in a self-imposed cocoon of loneliness.  She doesn’t trust the caffeine-fueled righteousness of the suburban women around her, nor does she  trust the sides of the political “right” and “left.”  Yet we love her.  Or at least Franzen loves her because she’s complicated and because she’s stuck.  Because she says “weird” instead of saying what is required of a successful mother living in the suburbs.

   This deep distrust of pat emotions begins with Patty’s awkward relationship to her parents, Joyce and Ray Emerson, life-long Democrats who sacrifice their child’s well being for their beliefs.  They want artsy-fartsy, left-leaning offspring like Patty’s sister, Abby, but instead, in Patty, they end up with a jock.  Patty’s a basketball star, a tall and lean machine.  Although she excels at her sport, her parents consider her basketball prowess freakish (and call her coach “freakish,” mocking her as a lesbian, though her parents pretend to be open-minded liberals). 

    Her father is a lawyer, a “touchy-feely” Democrat, if you will, who is actually a racist.  He disparages the people he so “admirably” offers pro-bono services to.  Similarly, Patty’s mom is simply hungry for publicity when she runs for office.  When Patty tearfully tells her parents that she was raped, her parents believe her, yet don’t want her to press charges because they are friends with the young rapist’s parents. 

    Rather than speaking bluntly, what they want to say is, Patty, suck it up because your rapist’s parents can help your mother get elected—they have mind-numbing conversations with Patty to persuade her not to go to the police.  For this Patty hates them. And then you, as a reader—do you hate them, as well?

   It’s impossible to hate one person in the book without hating them all.  If you were to hate Patty’s parents, then you would have to hate Patty, too, and her husband, Walter, and Richard, the musician-lover who is a border-line sell-out, and then you’d have to hate Jessica, the daughter, and Joey, the son.  Oh, you could easily hate Joey most of all—he’s such a creep at times--but you don’t.  Somehow Franzen manages to make you care about all of them.

   Joey is so maddening and egocentric that you just want to shout at him through the book.  During his first few weeks of college, 9/11 occurs. Although he knows what’s happening—he views the towers collapse on TV—he goes to class anyway and is surprised that what has happened has changed everything.  He doesn’t want change, he wants a mellow college experience and sees 9/11 as a personal affront to his comfort. 

    What can one do when faced with a jerk like this?  He marries one woman, doesn’t tell anyone about it because he’s ashamed of her (but doesn’t even realize he’s ashamed of her), then he flies to a foreign country with some other gal, where he’s making negotiations to settle dirty truck parts to fuel the Iraq War.  Finally, he ends up with his hand in a toilet, searching among his feces for his wedding band.  It seems that Joey is heading right towards the toilet all along.  I was cringing when I read all this, yet I couldn’t stop reading the Joey parts.  It’s strangely engaging to read about someone so dizzyingly empty.  Yet, in the end, Joey comes off as not so bad—not by any miraculous turn-around, but rather because he doesn’t pretend to be anyone but himself all along.

   Then there is Walter, Joey’s Dad and Patty’s husband.  Walter may be the most sympathetic character in the book.  He longs for Patty when he’s first introduced to her from his cooler-than-thou, womanizer roommate, Richard.  Although Patty longs for Richard, through a series of events she ends up with the more even-keeled, deliberate Walter.  They make a life together—Walter adores her—but Patty’s mind is always elsewhere.  Eventually, Walter, an environmentalist, ends up working for an energy tycoon who wants him to set up a bird sanctuary, to save the Cerulean Warbler.  In order to do this, Walter compromises his beliefs by cutting down trees in West Virginia.  He’s attacked for his actions, yet he longs to do the right thing.

   When I lay this all out, it feels as if I’m writing about a grand soap opera and sometimes while I was reading the book it felt a bit like this.  Multiple generations are examined and the book alternates between characters, so you follow Patty for a while, then it sweeps to Richard, then to Joey, etc.  I could see a book group discussing the characters, ever arguing over whether they are “good” or “bad,” and in fact, Freedom is an Oprah Book Club pick, which, based on the shaky relationship between Franzen and Oprah, seems surprising.  His first book, The Corrections, was, and then was not, another Oprah pick.  

   Speaking of conversations—this book is packed with dialogue.  Dialogue is good.  Dialogue is also fun and I never thought I would say this, but in this book sometimes the dialogue can be overwhelming.  There are pages and pages of conversation.  The conversations mimic real, meandering conversations and the tone of the book rides a fine line between satire and realism.  There are plenty of places in the book where Franzen makes fun of our idiosyncrasies and haphazard, do-gooder instincts.  For example, Franzen seems to have great fun poking fun at Walter’s “population control”/music fest (there is a hilarious section where Walter and his cohorts are trying to decide what to call such a group), yet Freedom does not have the scathing quality of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, which shines an unmerciful light on the trappings of suburbia, nor does Franzen have David Sedaris’ light ironic touch, so the book lies somewhere between the two, balancing (sometimes uncomfortably) between styles.

   The writing is not lovely in and of itself—in fact, sometimes the sentences are stiff and awkward, but somehow the accumulation of this awkwardness amounts to loveliness.  I’m grateful for this.  So many writers purr out sentences as pretty and bland as a Pottery Barn catalogue.  But what’s the point if they’re not saying anything?  There’s so much crap and garbage in our world—well, at least when you read this book you might agree that there is—and Franzen is not afraid to tackle most of it. 

    He looks at the mess in Iraq, takes a special interest in the environment, talks about over-population, glumly suggests the music industry is nothing more than one big commercial, and even addresses our youth’s preoccupation with technology.  He takes a knife to his topics, skewering them and revealing all the tricks and deficiencies in our thinking about our country’s problems. 

            In spite of Franzen’s obvious virtuosity, there’s a rawness to this novel.  It’s certainly not for everyone.  Not everyone will want to read about Joey’s preoccupation with certain body parts or about Walter having what amounts to a nervous breakdown.  But there’s also an admirable bravery in the work.  Franzen doesn’t pussyfoot around.  He attacks the book like a sculptor working on his metal, tearing at his material with energy and zeal.  Freedom is a book with scabs on its knees and a raucous caw in its throat—not sublime or beautiful—but gutsy and full.

Sally Cobau is a writer, editor, and teacher.  She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with her husband and three young children.

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