When I told a colleague I was listening to Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, she said, "Oh, the great American novel." There is something of that ambition about the book, an attempt to capture America in the decade after 9-11. (At least, the America of middle class white people, the only kind who appear.) Franzen is determined to get the details of American life exactly right, from the dynamics of gentrifying neighborhoods to the way college students talked about Facebook when it first emerged. I can imagine social historians 50 years from now assigning Freedom to their students, assuring them that it is accurate in every detail.
As a novel I found parts of it compelling and other parts tedious. Franzen's real interest is obviously interpersonal relations, especially family life, and the political parts of Freedom seem phoned in. Only when he connects a character's politics to tensions in his or her family does Franzen really seem interested. We have neocons and environmentalists and truck-driving working class men angry with liberal elitism, but it all seemed rather cardboard to me, especially compared to the attention Franzen lavishes on sibling rivalry and sexual guilt. Looking around him, Franzen must be wondering why so many Americans are so angry, and the answers he comes up with are more Freudian than philosophical or economic. One of the three main characters is environmentalist Walter Bergland, who doesn't so much love nature as hate atv-driving, chainsaw-wielding, gun-toting despoilers of the world like his father and brothers.
The other main characters are Walter's wife Patty Bergland and Walter's best old college friend, sometimes successful musician Richard Katz. You can already imagine the love triangle that develops here, as Patty marries the ploddingly earnest Walter while longing sexually for the excitingly wicked Richard, all the while musing that Walter and Richard love each other more than either will ever love her. I found this tedious; aren't there any other plots? As if one cliché of romance weren't enough, Franzen gives Walter and Patty's son an equally clichéd relationship with his sweet, loving hometown girlfriend; as he goes away to college, meets wealthy, powerful people, and longs to join them, he struggles with whether to get rid of his old love in favor of someone more stylish and well-connected. These relationships are the real heart of Freedom, and the most powerful parts all describe either the lovers' interactions or their internal struggles over whom and how to love.
Perhaps the stereotypical structure of the relationships is the point. We think we live in a revolutionary age, Franzen suggests, but what matters is still the timeless human concerns: love in both its passionate and gentle aspects, family, self esteem. I have no real problem with that; as I said, this is really Franzen's interest, and he should write about what interests him. He is, by the way, a highly skillful writer of the window pane variety; his prose rarely calls attention to itself but describes with admirable clarity what he wants the reader to see. I would not say, though, that this book really captures America very well. For one thing, Franzen seems to have no understanding of money. Nobody in the book ever lacks for it, and a couple of times when it seems that the absence of money will create problems, large sums of cash appear by semi-magical means to keep things moving. Characters with no income still live in Manhattan, albeit in cramped, dingy apartments; they put themselves through college without obvious jobs; when they turn toward corruption, wealth showers down on them so fast that they are rapidly sickened by it. Without a serious consideration of money, I think, it is impossible to get at why Americans are so angry. Why do college professors feel ignored and abused? Money. Why do working class people rail against "elites"? Money. Why are middle class people anxious? Because although they have enough money to get by, they never feel like it is enough for both safety and the things they crave. A book titled Freedom ought to give more attention to what freedom means to most Americans, which is enough money to do what you want.
Instead Franzen focuses on freedom as it applies to family and love. People struggle to break free from their families but then find themselves naked and alone; people act on forbidden sexual desires but then find themselves desolate with guilt and shame. Obedience to traditional moral dictates doesn't always work either, and people who sacrifice their freedom for duty are likely to feel trapped, bored, depressed, and full of resentment for those who break the rules and seem to be getting away with it. There can be no political solution to these problems. That, I suppose, is Franzen's message, to the extent that he has one. For him political anger is a misdirection of energies that should be spent putting our emotional lives in order, and instead of marching and shouting slogans we should be talking quietly to the people who matter to us.