Franzen’s False Cry of “Freedom”

By Melanie Wilcox

Critically acclaimed American author Jonathan Franzen gained widespread attention from his 2001 novel, The Corrections, which earned him a National Book Award.  His latest novel, Freedom, released in August 2010, earned him a place in Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club and landed him on the cover of Time. The success of The Corrections heightened anticipation for its successor, an Updike-like, literary realist story of a troubled Midwestern family.  Freedom recalls the author’s perceptions of America’s problems during the Bush Administration; it is a novel with a left-wing feel that showcases Franzen’s political convictions in the form of fiction.       

The book’s plot is convoluted, and attempts to capture as many domestic and global social issues as possible.  It begins by introducing a dysfunctional, liberal middle-class family, the Berglunds, who live in a nosy, gossipy, everybody-knows-everybody neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota.  The central characters are Patty Berglund, an all-American basketball player in college and later exemplary homemaker, and Walter Berglund, a passive-aggressive environmental lawyer and anti-growth, anti-population advocate. They have two children, Jessica and Joey.  Joey displays an independent, entrepreneurial spirit at an early age, and upsets his family by moving in with the Reaganite next-door neighbors, the Monaghans. He has a fling with their daughter, Connie, whom he later marries.  Patty, a “nice” person who can only say that rude behavior is just “weird,” has a repressed, angry edge that is revealed when she slashes the Monoghans’ tires after finding out about Connie and Joey’s relationship.

The characters’ upbringings influence their moral and political views, and there are conflicts between the two.  For instance, beginning in his teen years, conservative-minded Joey struggles with his liberal family by moving in with the next-door neighbors, and into his adult years by selling defective auto parts to the military for use in Iraq.  Swarmed with guilt, he eventually reconciles with his father and gives funds to support Walter’s environmental efforts.  Another conflict occurs when Walter struggles with his decision to cooperate with a coal mining company in an attempt to save an endangered songbird.  Franzen effectively sets up strong tensions between political views, moral convictions, and familial upbringing, and these tensions drive the novel.

Franzen also uses the lives of this dysfunctional and complicated family, to paint a picture of a world that is unjust on domestic and global levels. It is a world where freedom does not bring happiness; in fact, too much freedom can create problems. The characters struggle to find their freedom and then (more problematically) to handle their freedom. 

In that vein, Franzen suggests that the United States’ abundance of freedom can be dangerous.  Too much freedom on a personal level, as demonstrated by the characters’ decisions, and too much democracy in America can present problems.   How people deal with their freedom determines their fate.  In a world abundant with options and free will, political and moral beliefs can clash, as shown with Walter struggle to work with the coal mining company in efforts to save the endangered songbird.  It is a world where a person has to sacrifice his or her freedom by committing to things, whether it is the environment, relationships, political involvement, and other passions. Freedom can only be attained through self-acceptance: acceptance saves Patty and Walter’s marriage since they forgive each other; Patty’s mother resolves issues with her daughter when she recognizes her failures as a parent.

In a world where differing political worldviews constantly clash, Franzen seems to point out that people can never be free because compromises are always being made.  The author presents political commentary on both sides of the aisle with a liberal tone. Often, Freedom is a thinly veiled political commentary masquerading as fiction.  It is the same, overused, liberal, “blame George Bush” approach.  His bitterness regarding conservative politics can be seen by Joey, who rebels from his parents to “connive with monster trashing the country for their personal enrichment” and wishes for a “simpler world in which a good life could hardly be at nobody else’s expense.”   Granted, he has a few positive comments about the Republican Party, but it is insignificant compared to the rest of the 562-page novel.

Moreover, Franzen casts America in the most negative of lights in Freedom.  Lest he leave any room for literary interpretation, in a recent interview with The Economist, the author stated, “I’m at pains not to endorse any interpretation of my book but, believe me, this isn’t grating on my ears what you’re saying. In the last decade America has emerged even in its own estimation as a problem state. There are many criticisms one could make…like the treatment of the Indians…it goes way back…and our long relationship with slavery…and then the Cold War where we were certainly culpable, but the degree to which we are almost a rogue state and causing incredible trouble around the world in our attempts to preserve our freedoms to preserve our SUV’s.” It seems as if Franzen is conveying his political viewpoints through Walter, the nature conservationist.

This is a celebrated author whose characters say things like “F*** the pope,” and who writes, “9/11 had been orchestrated by Halliburton and the Saudi royal family.”  He sends this message to the reader through Walter’s perceptions and the hippie fans and the media who support Walter’s Free Space campaign.  The fans of Walter’s campaign shame West Virginia for “its high birth rates, its ownership by the coal industry, its large population of Christian fundamentalists, and its responsibility for tipping the 2000 election in George Bush’s favor.” Franzen’s ceaselessy heavy hand is bad enough, but his political intolerance makes it all the more appalling  that the word “Freedom” should grace the cover.