Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant new novel studies the planet, happiness and marriage
Freedom. By Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 576 pages; $28. Fourth Estate; £20.
IT WAS John DeForest, a writer of the civil-war period, who defined the Great American Novel in an 1868 essay for the Nation as “painting the American soul within the framework of a novel”. DeForest was arguing over the relative merits of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe, two writers who definitely fit the bill. Others have laid claim to the title (or had claim laid to it by their hopeful publishers), including J.D. Salinger, Don DeLillo, Tom Wolfe and John Updike.
Indeed, there has never been a shortage of candidates for this peculiarly American compulsion, and disagreements over who should wear the laurels are as long as the continent is wide. This year, though, the award may enjoy almost universal acclaim. The novel that America will be talking about in the coming weeks will be “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen.
A mop-haired Midwesterner who looks far younger than 51, Mr Franzen rose to fame a decade ago. This was when his third novel, “The Corrections”, a multigenerational family saga about American yuppies and their square parents, was first selected as a candidate for Oprah Winfrey’s book club and then very publicly dismissed by the television star. (Ms Winfrey did not care for Mr Franzen’s complaint that her book club appealed only to women readers.) The brouhaha did his book no harm. Though largely plotless, uneven in structure and weighed down with sarcastic observation, “The Corrections” went on to spend 29 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and win the 2001 National Book Award.
Mr Franzen’s work will not appeal to those seeking sharp-edged experimentalism in their fiction. But for readers who believe the novel to be an old-fashioned thing that, at its best, should bring alive fully imagined characters in a powerful narrative with a social context, his new book will be a huge draw. The author has spent the past ten years doing what he does well and making it better. “Freedom” has all its predecessor’s power and none of its faults.
Young marrieds, Walter and Patty Berglund are middle-class university graduates living in Minnesota (a step away from the Missouri of “The Corrections”), he working for 3M (a mining and manufacturing company), she staying home to bake cakes and bring up a frighteningly obedient daughter, Jessica, and a son, Joey, whose role is to test all the boundaries an American teenager can find. Proud of the ten-year effort they have put into restoring the Victorian town house they bought for a song in rundown old St Paul, the Berglunds see themselves as American pioneers. Or at least, descendants of the hard-working early creators of America rather than the greedy despoilers of its wilderness.
Many novels start well, but peter out before the end. “Freedom” is one of those rare books that starts well and then takes off. Walter resigns from 3M and moves into nature conservation working for a minerals magnate who wants to turn some of his ill-earned millions into saving a small woodland bird, the Cerulean warbler. This very funny, though ultimately catastrophic plot device gives Mr Franzen the opportunity to focus on the price that is exacted for American (for that, read Western) material affluence in terms of our planet, our emotional well-being and our children’s future. For Mr Franzen the central question is whether people really have a right to the pursuit of happiness when much of the rest of the world lives in misery.
But what makes “Freedom” such a joy to read is not the digression into conservation, but the many-layered analysis of the Berglunds’ marriage. Walter and Patty are united in hurt, lies and misunderstandings. Like others, they love intermittently and unevenly. How to be married when one of you loves truly, madly, deeply and the other feels “like I’m being followed around by a really nice, well-trained dog”?
Many such marriages potter along, coping as best they can. Mr Franzen tests the Berglunds’ union with miserable in-laws, half-hearted sex, temptation, alcoholism, noisy neighbours and teenage children who are all-knowing as well as wilfully half-blind. The Berglunds’ battle to win through gives “Freedom” an emotional colouring that points to a new maturity in Mr Franzen’s writing.
Visiting her daughter’s university, Patty observes a stone engraved with the words, “USE WELL THY FREEDOM”. The warning is there throughout. With its all-encompassing world, its flawed heroes and its redemptive ending, “Freedom” has the sweep of a modern “Paradise Lost”.
Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/node/16886055