Franzen ends Freedom with unexpected redemption

7 Nov

Freedom, the novel sensation of the fall by Jonathan Franzen, has been appropriated by popular sociology and journalists in an almost bizarre myriad of ways in an attempt to glean to some insight into what Americais now.

That so many people would attempt to do this now, at this particular moment in time, is perhaps more indicative of a broader anxiety among intellectual, journalistic and chattering classes to find some kind of new meaning for our current societal moment than Franzen’s ability to speak some new truth about life in America. Franzen himself in a PBS Newshour interview denied that he had written Freedom as a “social novel” to illuminate our times.

That does not mean, however, that Freedom has nothing to say about America here and now. In fact, it has a lot to say. But as Franzen has previously said, it’s a novel written for people living now, not for people living 200 years from now. The setting of the novel (and I mean setting in the broadest possible point) isn’t the point, but it is the background, the environment, that makes the novel possible. We seem so impressed that a novel, and a great novel at that, is written about us, about our time, our cultural and social moment, that in many cases the story itself is forgotten. Or, perhaps even worse, parts of the story are excerpted out of context to make a cultural point and the overall arch of the narrative is lost.

To focus on the cultural anecdotes that pepper Freedom, the tips of the hats to readers from Generation X and the Milennials, while ignoring the larger message of Freedom is the greatest violence that can be done to this work.

The larger message of Freedom is quite simple, which stands in stark contrast to the ever-increasing complexity of the narrative as the novel rolls along.

But first, the narrative of Freedom is quite complicated. The novel focuses on the Berglunds, a middle-class family living in a gentrified section of St. Paul, Minnesota. Walter, politically liberal and aesthetically conservative, mortgages his environmental radicalism for more pragmatic progress on his conservancy projects. Meanwhile, Walter’s wife Patty, the sleek former college basketball star, slowly suffocates under the weight of middle-class pleasantness and stealthfully seeks out the unreliable affection of Richard Katz, Walter’s former college roommate and mid-grade musician, and the rockster lifestyle that entails. And Joey, Walter and Patty’s teenage son, falls in love with the emotionally needy and depressive daughter of the God n’ Guns Republicans that live next door.

The potential for conflict is obvious and the first half of the novel is spent spinning of the web of storylines and characters decisions that are then unravelled to devastating effect in the second half. Despite this long set-up, the exposition doesn’t come off as meandering or boring. Rather, Franzen takes the time to develop each character – Walter, Patty, Richard, Joey – in such depth that that each one carries the same emotional force and complexity throughout the course of the story. Franzen’s adept use of the third person limited to build each character only adds to the richness of the second half of the novel.

The second half of the novel could be called the fall, as the numerous contradictions, lies and conflicts sown during the first 200 pages or so begin to drag the characters’ lives ever-so-slowly and sometime unexpectedly into a seeming abyss. It is in this part of the novel where Franzen’s primary message emerges. Not unsurprisingly, the point ofFreedom is freedom. The characters have taken their freedom and with it they have built themselves a personal hell. In several cases, they use freedom to put into motion situations and chain reactions that ultimately rob them of freedom.

Franzen does not strike me as a particularly religious or faith-holding person, but his novel is a powerful telling of The Fall. Adam and Eve use their freedom in a way that brings curse, the consequences of their actions reaching far beyond what they had presumably ever anticipated. The choices made by the Berglunds bring about their own kind of curses, forcing characters into increasingly morally-bankrupt choices.

Freedom comes close to being a tragedy. A real American Tragedy.

But it is not.

To reveal why would give away too much, but there is redemption. You get the sense that Franzen wanted to end the novel tragically, to pound the characters into the oblivion of the hell they had created. But for whatever reason, he couldn’t do it. And so redemption comes. It is too simplistic to be completely satisfying, but it comes. The key to their redemption is freedom, the very thing they used to bring suffering upon themselves in the first place.

Perhaps Franzen needed to needed to show freedom was not evil and did not bend downward morally. Perhaps Franzen wanted to leave a parting gift to his casual audience – the many readers for whom Freedom may be one of only novels at most they read this year – those who are trained on 30-minute sitcoms and 90-minute romcoms whose tidy packaging mean they’ll always turn off the TV or leave the theater feeling as though they’ve absorbed some profound (in reality bite-size and ordinary) moral or message.

Personally, I prefer to think Franzen wrote quick and dirty redemption into his novel at the last minute as an exercise of his freedom. His freedom as the author, the creator, to wrest back control of the narrative from the fatally-flawed characters he set into motion. His dictate on paper that suffering and misery and despair will not have the last word.

And if Freedom is suppose to be a reflection of America, then I can’t imagine a more appropriate ending. To showcase in the final few pages the chance to steer destiny and fate, despite odds and reality – a belief, however true or false – that remains at the core of the American psyche: That is freedom.


PBS Newshour interview with Jonathan Franzen


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