Freedom: the power to determine action without restraint. Sexual freedom, religious freedom, political freedom—you can have it all in America. Franzen explores these liberties in his hard-hitting, sexually charged, and sometimes hilarious treatise on the titular topic. And what better subjects to tackle than the nuclear family, fame, politics and the so-called “Whole Foods generation.”
Freedom: the power to determine action without restraint
At first glimpse, Franzen’s characters are almost drawn as sketches or even caricatures (do-gooder dad, super-mom, angsty rock star), but he doesn’t leave them so crude or over exaggerated. Instead, he draws layers on each, essentially by ripping apart their shiny façades and exposing their flawed inner struggles. In less-adept hands, the story would seem disingenuous or even hypercritical of what we hold dear.
Portrait of a family
True to his mastery in developing characters and illuminating their flaws under a harsh spotlight, Franzen delivers. He starts off by painting a picture of the Berglunds, an ideal family that appears to be living the “American Dream” in the new millennium, complete with sniping suburban neighbors who secretly wish for their unravelling.
We witness family patriarch, Walter, described as “greener than Greenpeace” getting into bed with the coal industry and becoming a proponent for devastating mountaintop removal (MTR), all to, paradoxically, save a single species of bird: the cerulean warbler. When Walter seeks solace at the old family cottage on Nameless Lake, he takes his eco ethos to an extreme by kidnapping the neighbour’s cat after its owner refuses to keep the songbird-killing pet indoors. After all, it’s the domesticated species’ inalienable right to hunt even if a bowl of vittles is awaiting in the kitchen.
Walter’s wife, Patty, high-school basketball phenom and all-around great mom, slowly descends into drinking and depression. She eventually (inevitably?) gets into bed with her unrequited school crush—Walter’s best friend and latent rock star, Richard Katz.
Patty, on the advice of her therapist, writes an autobiography as a means to cope with her unfulfilled life and string of erratic actions. This type of plot device, at first, seemed like a gimmick to me, but on reflection, I realize that Franzen had written Patty’s autobiography in the third person, cleverly illustrating her unwillingness or inability to take responsibility for her actions. Freedom once again trumps all.
Then there’s daughter Jessica, who effectively withdraws from the family unit, and Franzen seemingly glazes over this “normal” kid. Isn’t that what happens in real life, after all? The outliers—good, bad, or downright ugly—grab the spotlight. It’s a subtle gesture on Franzen’s part, and what he doesn’t write is powerfully deliberate.
Teenage son Joey, however, rebells spectacularly against Walter and Patty by moving in with the trashy next door neighbours and and their teenage daughter, Connie, with whom he begins a sexually experimental and co-dependent, bordering on abusive, relationship.
When he heads to university, Joey doesn’t follow in Walter’s do-gooder green footprints, or echo his grandmother’s Democratic persuasions (Patty’s mother is a politician in New York state office). He becomes a right-wing Republican, all the while exploring his Jewish roots, if only to get his affluent best pal’s alluring sister into to have sex with him. Of course, he succeeds, but only after he marries Connie and begins his own dangerous downward spiral fueled by money and greed.
As the tragedy of September 11, 2001 unfolds in New York city right before Joey’s eyes, he doesn’t pause to consider the individuals whose lives are snuffed out in an instant. Instead, he’s annoyed at how the events that will leave the entire world irrevocably changed interrupt the flow of his day. Joey’s callousness is reminiscent of 1980s-era Gordon “greed is good” Gecko.
The cringe-inducing moment is one of many Franzen delivers in the book, like this exchange between Joey and Walter:
“Yeah, well, so, I guess the thing is, I’m sort of in some trouble.”
“I said I’m in some trouble.”
It was the kind of call that every parent dreaded getting; but Walter, for a moment, wasn’t feeling like Joey’s parent. He said, “Hey, so am I! So is everybody!”
Freedom, and the power to determine action without restraint, as Franzen astutely illustrates, can come with a hefty price tag. φ