Free as a Bird Now

Book cover
Freedomby By Jonathan FranzenFarrar, Straus and Giroux. 576p $28

During the inaugural season of the new Yankee Stadium this past summer, the New York tabloids reported the story of a fan who was inconvenienced by a security guard’s refusal to let her bring her Apple iPad to her seat. This seemed to the patron an outrageous violation of her personal freedom. Yankee security considered the iPad a laptop, and these are forbidden. She called it a personal digital assistant. A nearby hot dog vendor who witnessed the kerfuffle delivered the money quote for one reporter: “I can’t bring my iPad into a game? White people’s problems.”

This tale is not included in Jonathan Franzen’s ballyhooed new novel, Freedom, but it would not necessarily have been thematically out of place. The emotional lives of the characters in Freedom are very much the stuff that many a hot dog vendor (or reader) might dismiss as the particular obsessions and dramas of a privileged suburban family, one that would do well to take itself a little less seriously in times of trouble. That this sense is present throughout the novel does not ruin Franzen’s effort, but it somewhat compromises what Franzen clearly intended as a “big book,” the kind of literary opus that could perhaps land the author on the cover of Time (which has already happened; he’s been there twice now).

This is not to say that the lives of Walter and Patty Berglund and those who love them are depicted as easy or lacking in their own peculiar tragedies, but the reader may find it hard to sympathize or engage entirely with this contemporary American family as they negotiate the perils of modern existence as socially conscious and painfully self-conscious people. Frankly, the Berglunds are irritating people, not only to their fictional neighbors but to the reader as well, and they remain irritating in almost everything they do.

From their suburban roots as a family to their gradual migration to gentrified urban life, the Berglunds and their relatives and friends search for a kind of autonomy (freedom?) that their parents, their past, their commitments or their culture seem somehow to have robbed from them. Walter wants to save his marriage to Patty, but might prefer to save the globe from warming. Patty is sure she wants to be the perfect mother, but also wouldn’t mind some surgical interventions to remind her of an athletic youth, or the not-so-occasional bottle of white wine to help with her misgivings about how life has turned out. Son Joey wants individual autonomy but does not disdain the monthly cash infusions Patty sends from under Walter’s nose.

The only major character who seems free from this unease and contradictory existence is Walter’s rock-star buddy Richard, but Richard’s saving grace is his utter lack of concern for the rules and mores of any of the cultures through which he lazily moves. He is the most entertaining of the bunch, truth be told, and the unlikely moral voice throughout much of the novel. Portrayed as a more priapic version of the alt-country rocker Jeff Tweedy, Richard is able to recognize and tell the truth about everyone’s lives even while he might be helping to ruin them.

While War and Peace is the novel to which Franzen most frequently and consciously refers in the book (particularly in the complicated and frequently tormented relationships between Walter, Patty and Richard), I found much less of Tolstoy and much more of John Cheever in these pages. Like Cheever, Franzen is at his best when detailing (and despairing over) the random cruelties and pettiness of economically prosperous but emotionally hollow American community life: the unsolved mystery of one neighbor’s slashed tires, the suspicious disappearance of another neighbor’s bird-killing cat, the unreflective adulteries and affairs, the gossip and rivalries that color every intention. I was reminded repeatedly of Cheever stories like “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” and his other tales of families struggling with an undefined sense of angst and anomie in a world where the superficial appearance of success has been achieved.

Franzen does take Freedom beyond that—this is no short story, after all—into larger themes of overpopulation and environmental catastrophe and war-plagued societal collapse, and in these themes Freedom hints at the dystopian menace that could always be found lurking in the background of Franzen’s earlier novels. His characters in Freedom have some concrete notions of how to save the world (or, in the case of Joey and Richard, how to profit from its collapse while lending a perfunctory hand), and they chase those ambitions in tandem with their search for their own safe emotional backyards. Perhaps the military-industrial complex running rampant in Bush-era America can be exploited for good; maybe rapacious mountaintop-removal mining can fund bird sanctuaries; or maybe even grossly mismanaged inheritances can help to create a brighter future. But as the story winds down, these quests once again become secondary to the individual quests for autonomy and for those ever-elusive safe backyards in which to relax. At the same time, sudden tragedies and inevitable personal setbacks bedevil those primary quests as well.

By the final 100 pages of the novel, the story and its actors have run out of steam; some characters are simply whitewashed out and others are spent of their energy for anything but a simple existence where they won’t be bothered and won’t bother in turn. Poking around in the silly rubble of their lives at this late point, Franzen seems to say, will not change the overall arc of their individual or collective quests, nor offer a chance for greater meaning than the characters found themselves. Ultimately, perhaps, life is a bit too much for the Berglunds, be it writ large or small.

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