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'Freedom' - Jonathan Franzen

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Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
© Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux
Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, August 2010

Meet Walter Berglund. He's the Rabbit Angstrom for our turgid 2000s, a patriarch caught tightly in the jaws of his dysfunctional family and his only means of distraction are the world's equally mucky politics. He's married to Patty, a depressed stay-at-home mom who is still holding fast to her days as a college basketball star. They settle down in St. Paul to raise their two children, Joey and Jessica, and find out how hard it is to be both good neighbors and good parents.

After a masterful opening chapter, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom shifts its perspective entirely towards Patty. Entering into a section called "Mistakes Were Made" we carefully plod through Patty's private autobiography (the creation of which was suggested by her therapist). Without an intended reader, Patty leaves very little held back. We learn more about the time she was raped in high school, her falling out with her family, and her sexual fascination (and experimentation) with Walter's best friend, a successful musician named Richard Katz.
The Berglunds each strive for independence and fail at achieving it. The bonds of family are too tight, and we watch as these characters repeatedly trip over their bloodlines in an attempt to grow up and grow apart. Even reaching outside the family, beyond the Berglunds, it becomes apparent that all the relationships in Freedom are so networked that it's difficult to act without drastically affecting (and hurting) unintended parties.

Most of the book takes place in 2004, at a post-9/11 / pre-YouTube turning point in what Franzen outspokenly criticizes as our most cluttered decade. Franzen saturates Freedom with enough of the 2000s that they slowly soak into the foundation of the Berglund's life. The ever-presence of politics eats away at the Berglunds' already strained ties:

"Then, on the Fourth of July, during a family visit he was making only to be nice, [Joey] vouchsafed the details of his work… hoping to impress [Walter] with the size of his salary and the scope of his responsibilities; and his father all but disowned him on the spot. Until now, all his life, their relationship had essentially been a standoff, a stalemate of wills. But now, his dad was no longer content to send him on his way with a lecture…now he was shouting that Joey made him sick... and there was nothing he could do himself but cross his arms tightly and make his face a mask and shake his head and tell his dad, over and over, not to criticize things he didn't understand."
The difficulty these characters face is showing that they actually believe in something, but any movement away from normalcy puts further stress on whatever social tangle they've learned to accept.

Freedom is not without its faults. The story backs into a slightly convoluted political thread as Walter grows into his 40s. He's working for a coal company that advocates mountaintop removal and considers it a necessary evil if the US is going to stay free from international oil trade. Walter intends to use the land sectioned off to create a bird sanctuary for the endangered Cerulean Warbler. Holding onto his political momentum, Walter further plans to use his clout to advocate population control, working with Richard Katz to target the Gen Y demographic. This transition from mountaintop removal to population control is not the easiest to follow, but the blame for this thread's weakness is more appropriately placed on Walter than it is on Franzen. Although a little less emotionally accessible, Walter's political relationships are just as knotted as those at home. Ultimately, this creates a tricky but important dichotomy; the slower parts of Freedom are there for a reason; they just require a bit of patience to see their intended purpose.
Freedom is a difficult book, but not in terms of its language; one of many impressive feats of Freedom is how easy the book is to read. Franzen's not out to impress with highfalutin vocabulary, but simply tell a story that opens up a world of too-real characters and their familiar, complicated emotions. He achieves some of the book's most devastating lines with perfectly tuned bluntness and simplicity; it's in this manner Franzen's writing is able to sting most painfully. And this is where the difficulty sets in: the Berglunds exist in a veritable hall of mirrors; Franzen has created such a wide-ranging cast both socially and politically that it is difficult not to project oneself onto one or an amalgamation of characters. Freedom is a terribly relatable book, and the more reflections you see the more deliciously hard it is to stomach.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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