Free to Be Me

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  Farrar Straus Giroux.  562 pp.  $28.00

Jonathan Franzen is the novelist I always wanted to be.  Like The Corrections, Freedom essentially dissects one dysfunctional family, really just four people—maybe five or six, if you include important friends—and does so at exhaustive length, yet never seems dull, or overly long.  Franzen sees so much about these people, and understands them so deeply.  There is a kind of love in a novelist who is willing to give so much space and care to his characters.  He writes wonderful sentences, puts his stories together beautifully.  I’m full of admiration for his work.

But I’m honestly puzzled about the title, and wondered about it the whole way through.  Rage is more like the title I would give this novel; that describes the overwhelmingly present emotion in Walter Berglund, the protagonist who dominates the novel.  His wife Patty is actually more interesting.  His son Joey is more likable, and freer.  His friend Richard Katz, a freewheeling and ultimately dedicated rock musician, is more charismatic.  But Walter dominates the novel for me.  His feelings hang over it like a cloud.

Walter is a person who largely shares my political views.  He is an environmentalist and—among other things—a bird lover; I often thought throughout the book that, though he loved his wife, loved at least one of his children, came to love a young woman who worked for him, he loved birds more than people, and given the choice of killing one or the other, I’m not sure which way he’d go.  He actually, toward the end of the novel, traps a cat that has been killing birds and carts it off to the pound, knowing it will most likely be killed.  But he thinks of all the bird lives he will be saving and performs the act anyway.

Walter’s bete noir is the population explosion, which he sees as the real problem behind all of our environmental concerns.  He knows how many people are added to the world population every day, and it’s as if he viscerally feels every one of those births, worries over them moment by moment.  What we are doing to our world—by over-populating it, building new houses and malls, spoiling its water, exploiting it for energy—bothers him so much that he can’t enjoy the beautiful world he lives in.  His ideas about the world’s problems overwhelm him.  He seems miserable.

This is freedom?

Walter gets involved in a massive scheme which, in the long run, will save a species of bird, but in the short run will devastate a section of West Virginia by strip mining it and robbing people of their homes (though it will give them nicer homes in nicer places); this scheme is very Walter, intellectually brilliant but emotionally all wrong.  Walter is the one who has to tell people to get out of their houses.  He’s the one who has to approve of temporarily ruining the landscape.  He’s the face of the project to the world, especially the world of media.  And that is not a world that deals in subtleties.

Before we hear about this part of Walter’s life, however, we’ve heard all the rest: his marriage to Patty, who was a basketball star when the two of them were in college; his relationship to minor rock star Richard Katz, whom Walter worshiped for being so different and so apparently free, and who could have taken Patty away from him in a heartbeat; Walter’s daughter Jessica, who shares his environmental concerns; his son Joey, who is shockingly independent and more of a right winger.  Franzen has a way of moving from character to character, and through different time frames, so that you never wonder why he’s doing it, and you’re never confused, but you eventually seem to hear about the whole life of every one of his characters.  It’s a vivid group of people, and Franzen is remarkably skillful at portraying them.

I should mention in particular Joey’s girlfriend Connie, the daughter of a very bourgeois mother and a man that other novelists might describe as trailer trash.  Joey not only has sex with her early on—a young man’s dream—he actually moves in with her and her family, breaking his mother’s heart and infuriating his father.  If you heard about Connie anecdotally you’d probably think she was trailer trash herself.  You might even think she was stupid.  But I’ve seldom seen a portrait of a more honest, open-hearted, straightforward young woman.  She loves Joey and will do anything for him, even lend him her life’s savings so he can start a business.  She adores the man.  And for a long time Joey doesn’t see what he has, just because he has it.  Like most men—most human beings—he wants something else that he thinks will be better.  But no man ever had a woman better than Connie, or one who loved him so well.

You can’t say the same thing about Patty, who is in some ways the most human and likable character in the novel, much moreso than her husband.  It’s true that she had a thing for Richard early on (almost any woman would have) and not just early on.  She certainly doesn’t give herself to Walter the way Connie gives herself to Joey.  Yet Patty is working on herself, on her whole life.  Part of the narrative we read is an autobiography she writes in the hope of straightening herself out.  Walter gets ahold of this document, learns some things he had no business knowing, and wants nothing more to do with her.  That is, once again, his moral absolutism talking, the part of himself that is way up in his head.  He doesn’t see the woman she has become.  He sees the struggling woman she once was.  He doesn’t seem able to differentiate, or to forgive.

At one point toward the end of the narrative, when his life is really at a lot point, Walter goes off in search of his long lost brother Mitch, a guy who is completely different from him.  He’s spent his life drinking, going through one woman after another, conceiving children—he’s responsible for five children on the planet!—and by now doesn’t support any of them; he has multiple wives seeking child support.  He lives in a trailer by a lake, fishes for food, makes money at odd jobs, tries to stay under the radar.  “You’re a free man,” Walter says to him, and his brother says “That I am.”  But that isn’t the kind of freedom we want.  It’s a freedom that ruins more than one life in this novel.  It’s a freedom that becomes a kind of prison.

Despite some sad moments, I would call Freedom a comedy.  It has a happy ending of sorts, and in a way the whole scheme Walter was involved in was a farce; he has a meltdown in front of television cameras that is at once terrifying and hilarious.  The answer to our dilemmas—if Franzen is offering one—seems to be a little less dogmatic, more human, more accepting.  It’s good to want to change the world.  But it’s also good to appreciate the world you have.