Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was one of the novels I was dreading reading. It clocks in at a massive 561 pages and the type/line spacing does not offer any reprieve. When Franzen drops War and Peace into the novel’s action, I felt like I was reading a modern homage to Tolstoy’s own tome. I don’t mean this as a sleight to either novel (even if reading War and Peace felt like an onerous task for a lot of its length). Freedom takes the time to fully delineate and develop numerous characters. This is the strength of a novel as opposed to a short story where you can only show a moment or two without stretching beyond into something else.
Freedom centres on the Berglund family, Walter a 3-M employee who commutes by bike all year in Minnesota, and Patty, his former college basketball star home maker wife. Richard Katz, a punk guitarist turned indie hero in later life, comes in and out of both of their lives. Someone once told me that love triangles make the greatest material and are the most potent relationship to explore. Freedom certainly gives credence to this theory as all three characters vie for each other’s affection and love in unhealthy and harmful ways. The novel also takes up Joey, Walter and Patty’s son, who moves in with their Republican neighbours (much to his parents’ chagrin) and eventually becomes a successful venture capitalist. One thing I did not understand, and this will seem ironic given my earlier comments, is why Jessica, their daughter, is not given the full narrative spotlight like her brother or even some of Patty’s sisters and Walter’s brothers. She is a rather thin character that seems out of place given Franzen’s development of literally everyone else in the book. Why not take the time to draw her out even if it adds 50 more pages? The difference between 560 and 610 pages is not really that much (or is it?).
This novel is an epic in every sense of the word. There are journeys, self-revelations, twists, epiphanies, and developments to the hilt. I’m still somewhat flabbergasted at how much Franzen packed into the novel. This is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in the sense that it reads like a crash-course primer in American politics and history from say 1995 until the Obama era. A curse in the sense that this novel suffers, at times, from information overload. The numerous plot lines, characters, and histories that readers have to juggle can be overwhelming. Yet I admire Franzen’s ambition to write the “great novel.” He aims high and achieves this goal for the most part. Of course, it partly assumes an interest in American politics, environmentalism, and American culture. If you aren’t interested, then staying away is probably a good course of action. This is a novel to spend time with as Franzen has some rich material and some great writing. However, the novel’s breadth and size is also a challenge. Yet this points, to me anyways, to how complex the world we live in actually is. It’s not just a matter of doing one thing differently in order to save the whales/polar bears/ penguins. It’s a matter of total systemic change while also realizing that the likelihood of this happening is pretty small. Walter struggles with how to effect real change in the world and has an existential crisis over his uneasy collaboration with the coal mining and military industries in order to create a single Warbler preserve in perpetuity. This is productive material for any environmentalist to encounter.
I would highly recommend this book to fellow ecocritics and other readers interested in issues of environment. But be warned it is long, so long ….
Franzen, Jonathan. Freedom. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2010. Print.
PS – There’s a great dig at Conor Oberst and indie music in general buried in the middle of the book.