Franzen’s Freedom is a First-rate Portrait of Middle-class American Life

In Book Review by Edward Nawotka

Review by Edward Nawotka

In 2001, on the night of the National Book Awards, I stood a few feet from Jonathan Franzen as he vacillated before the revolving door of the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square, his image spinning in the door’s revolving glass. Franzen was hard to read. He was wearing the same somewhat grim expression that he wears in the photo that appeared last month on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “Great American Novelist,” neither serene nor excited. This was the year Franzen made headlines when Oprah Winfrey’s disinvited him to appear on her show to discuss his third novel, The Corrections something that would have all but guaranteed the book would become a best-seller and turn Franzen into a millionaire.

That night at the hotel, I swear, Franzen looked as if he were about to turn around and bolt. He did eventually walk through that revolving door, and The Corrections took home the National Book Award for fiction (it was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize).

Franzen had better ready himself for a repeat. His new novel, Freedom, is even more worthy of the accolades.

Freedom is a sweeping, 586-page portrait of contemporary America as seen through the prism of a single family, the Berglunds of St. Paul, Minn. Franzen shrewdly opens the novel not from the perspective of the Berglunds themselves, but from that of their neighbors, with all the neighborhood gossip, presumptions and history that one might glean as an outsider.

Patty Berglund, the matriarch, is a lapsed Jew from Westchester County, N.Y., and a former second-team All-American point guard for the University of Minnesota basketball team. She is known to her neighbors as “a resource, a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee.” She drives a Volvo, worries about the politics of the Boy Scouts and recycles batteries.

Her husband, Walter, is a native of Hibbing (the Minnesota town best known as the childhood home of Bob Dylan) and an executive with the Nature Conservancy. He describes himself as a feminist, never drinks and insists on riding his bike to work, even in the depths of winter. He’s what is sometimes called “Minnesota nice”; that is, he’s well-meaning, if a bit bland (think of the movie Fargo).

The Berglunds have two teenage children: Jessie is self-contained and studious, while her brother, Joey, is precocious and independent, opting to spend his senior year not at home, but next door with his girlfriend’s uncouth and permissive parents.

A third adult, Richard Katz, Walter’s sexy but irresponsible best friend, is the singer-guitarist of a neo-punk band called the Traumatics. He provides the x variable in Patty and Walter’s relationship.

As Freedom progresses, Franzen focuses on each character in turn, tracking the Berglunds and Katz from the late 1990s to the near present. They deal — no surprise here — with a series of mini-dramas, bad decisions and repressed feelings, culminating with a decision to decamp for Washington, D.C., following the kids leaving for college (Swarthmore in Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia). There, Walter takes control of a questionable charity to save the cerulean warbler, an endangered songbird (Franzen is a big birder), that is funded by a Houston oil-and-gas billionaire with a secret plan. His and Patty’s changed roles — she is no longer capable of playing house and he is no longer the unimpeachable do-gooder — force them to confront what it is they really want out of their lives, and what it is they want to do with the personal freedom their success and status afford them.

The question at the heart of Freedom, then, is how do we use the freedom we’ve been blessed with to best effect — for ourselves, our families, and the generations to follow. It functions as both a personal and political question, one that the book’s characters must try to answer for themselves.

If this makes Freedom sound like a moralizing tract, fear not; it is not preachy. Instead, it is provocative. Franzen has posed a complicated universal question that is likely to prompt a degree of self-reflection in readers (or at least it did in me). His characters — and readers — are free to come to their own conclusions; Franzen’s only guidance comes in the form of an etching that Patty spots on the side of a building at Swarthmore that reads “USE THY FREEDOM WELL.”

Freedom was written in a period that saw America move from the Clinton years to the Bush years — when America’s moral high ground as protectors of worldwide freedom was put to the test — and in many ways, it is a companion piece to The Corrections, which also served up a family of self-obsessed, upper-middle-class American strivers, the Lamberts. But The Corrections reveled with a sardonic glee at the Lamberts’ shortcomings and, as a consequence, Franzen frequently succumbed to the temptation to lampoon them. While this made for a very funny and readable book, it was also discomfiting.

Freedom is far more forgiving, making it a superior work. For starters, the Berglunds are more capable characters than the Lamberts, fully aware of the consequences of their actions. Even if they can’t always calculate the cost of every act of self-indulgence and weakness in advance, they know a “balloon payment” awaits them in the end.

No, Freedom is not perfect. Franzen’s sentences can be stilted and overly formal at times. And, certainly, readers looking for a portrait of multicultural, melting pot America won’t find it here — this book is rooted firmly in the white upper-middle class.

If I were to compare Freedom and The Corrections with another series in American literature, I’d put them on the shelf with John Updike’s “Rabbit” books (Patty Berglund’s history as a basketball star immediately calls this comparison to mind). Updike’s four novels, which started with 1960’s racy Rabbit, Run and ended with 1990’s solemn Rabbit at Rest, also matured, deepened and improved over time. They are dated, but at the time of their publication they held a mirror to their era (or at least, to a white, educated, middle-class man’s era) much in the way Franzen’s novels hold a mirror to ours (the same caveats apply).

As with any mirror, you might not always like what you see, but you might learn something unexpected about yourself. And, very often, you can’t stop looking.

Freedom is published in the United States by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.