Monday, September 27, 2010

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen


A big book, in every sense. The whole of America is wrapped in its pages--a close, funny, irreverent look at "the way we live now." Funny and tragic at the same time, Freedom is a comedy of manners that can enter the literary canon as a marker for America early in the 21st century, just as the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton gave us the motivations and beliefs of Americans in the early 20th. What I understood the author was saying is that we have so much freedom to create our own lives and make our choices, but sometimes that freedom is as much of a burden as not having freedom. And that perhaps with all our freedom, our choices are less than laudable, and feel more like mistakes. Maybe we're not doing such a bang-up job of making good citizens despite our unprecedented learning and wealth. We may have an inkling of what we ought to do, but we never seem to choose that particular option. Franzen has the young ones of the Berglund family, Jessica and Joey, looking with dismay at the choices their parents have made, but it is just a matter of time—they have had less time to make their own choices—and mistakes. No one political party comes off looking attractive after Franzen lays waste to their point of view, showing the absurdity of the rhetoric spewing from all sides. But the author clearly believes we have a responsibility to do the moral thing--a thing we already know but "choose" not to do. It is a human failing, but in this book, it has a particularly American flavor.

The book was frustrating and irritating to begin, for I felt much impatience with the long discussion of Patty's college years. I can attest to the kind of naiveté Patty exhibited in high school with her neighbor boy and in college with her stalker girl, but as an adult, the painful examination of old mistakes and errors in judgment felt like a reliving old wounds. The narrative and my sense of involvement changed, however, when Richard was introduced. The scene where Patty changes her interest from Walter to Richard felt all too real. Which one of us has not experienced the pain and humiliation of a potential lover lusting after our best friend? From whichever angle--the foolish luster, the cool lusted-after, or the poorly-done-by loser, it is an oft-played, excruciatingly painful memory, and when Franzen brought us there, he got my attention. From that point on, we regularly and ruefully see ourselves, our friends, our enemies, our families struggling to gain control of our lives, make decisions, and then overcome the results of poor decisions. With all the freedom we have to choose any direction, we often choose a wrong direction, the author seems to be saying. Judging from the recognition with which I read the novel, I've been there more times than I care to admit.

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