That Jonathan Franzen’s fourth novel, Freedom, debuted at #1 on the Fiction section of the New York Times Bestsellers List in September last year is one of those phenomenal outliers that defy the logic of free market capitalism. It’s not that it has no business being #1 when the spot is usually held by the likes of Henry Potter and Danielle Steele— on occasion there are tremendous works of literature that manage to win public adulation (although it doesn’t happen anywhere near as much as it used to)— what makes Franzen’s sales trumping remarkable is that it is a case of dog biting the proverbial hand. Freedom is an angry work of literary activism that wholeheartedly skewers the celebrated virtues of capitalism— unrestricted growth, consumer branding, mass production— indicting nearly every American, who whether they feel guilty about it or not, enjoy unsustainable lifestyles that are a “cancer on the planet.” Freedom is a novel that Al Gore might have written had he the imagination to portray the extravagant waste of the Bush era as an American family in microcosm.
The family in Freedom is the Berglunds, Walter and Patty, who raised their son, Joey, and daughter, Jessica in St. Paul, Minnesota. On the surface, to neighbors for example, they are secular middle-class Democrats. But in literature, a character is rarely just a character; just as often it is a metaphor for an idea. Walter is an environmentalist with a Malthusian obsession of population growth, a “nice” guy who loves his wife in spite of her eccentricities and lingering depressiveness. Because she was once a basketball “jock,” Patty has a very competitive spirit that shadows every decision she makes. She is a stay-at-home mother, an atheist, and an adulterer. The person she has a long-term affair with is Richard Katz, a moody, womanizing post-punk front man, and Walter’s long time best friend. This rather untenable and scandalous development is the personal drama of the novel. At its bones, Freedom is the story of a Midwestern family growing up and growing old, weathering the inevitable life crises that is the fate of all of us.
At 562 pages, Freedom is quite a bit more than just a tricky love triangle. It’s not possible to describe the many subplots of the novel but suffice it to say, the political undercurrent begins in the novel’s first paragraph referencing an item in the New York Times about Walter making “quite a mess of his professional life out there in Washington… in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people,” in methods described as “arrogant” and “ethically compromised.” How “nice” Walter got into so much trouble is a mystery that beguiles the reader to understand what might have developed.
But horses will be held: we’re almost 300 pages into the novel before Franzen lets us inside Walter’s life with the close third person. The novel, carved into jigsaw pieces that slowly fit together, begins in St. Paul, describing how the Berglunds had become the inspiration of playful, if sometimes malicious gossip, as conveyed in the tone of an omniscient scuttlebutt. Their next-door neighbor, Carol Monaghan, falls in love with a noisy, self-righteous Republican, Blake, while her daughter, Connie, seduces Patty and Walter’s son, Joey, who leaves his family to move in with the Monaghans, disappointing Walter and devastating Patty. It’s comic and sad and seems to suggest that American families, for all their secrets, can’t help exposing their dirty laundry.
The second section is a long “autobiography,” called “Mistakes Were Made,” written by Patty, a Babushka doll-like story within a story in which Patty writes about her social awkwardness, her rape experience, her desire to get away from her parents and “special” siblings. When she finishes high school in Westchester, New York, she attends the University of Minnesota, plays collegiate basketball, and falls in love with her best friend’s boyfriend, Richard Katz, who fronts a band called The Traumatics, singing derivative punk ditties like “I Hate Sunshine.” At a Traumatics show, she meets Walter, who comes from a rural dysfunctional family that doesn’t appreciate his intellectual curiosities and strong work ethic. Richard and Walter are challenging thinkers—they can recognize the bullshit of the Reagan-Thatcher era they’re entering—but diverge wildly with their attitudes toward women. Richard has the rock star’s gratuitous one-bite-and-throw-‘em-away appetite. Walter, sensitive beyond reason, falls in love with Patty, who has a thing for Richard, who doesn’t reciprocate her feelings but thinks she’s pretty unique for a jock. Patty is grateful for Walter’s many kindnesses though she’d throw it all away for a wild night with Richard. The triangle’s degrees thus first measured.
Patty, recognizing that by choosing one man she loses the other, hedges her bet, and marries Walter even though she’s not nor could ever be in love with him. But Walter is smitten and acquiesces to her bourgeois middle class desires—buying and renovating a house, finding a good-paying job and starting a family that she stays at home to raise even though he’s a Malthusian feminist, suggesting that for Patty’s sake he compromises on his ideal woman, that of the childless working professional.
Not all crushes go unrequited however and years later there is a short weekend with Richard, brisker yet much more intense than the average honeymoon. It’s a betrayal that’s horrible for the both of them—Richard and Patty are essentially competitive people whose touchstone for goodness is Walter. And for Patty their amorous aberration magnifies the emptiness in her life:
“She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.”
Patty drifts into depression while Richard discovers enormous success. In his early forties now, he draws from their affair a mature, quiet, lyrical alt-country album that goes multi-platinum, turning him into a reluctant celebrity. It’s the kind of CD bought by people who like Norah Jones or the “Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack: easy listening background music for people who don’t really have sensibility or taste, something Starbucks might promote as a tie-in, a stocking stuffer. It’s so disheartening for Richard to become a profitable product for capitalists that he quits the industry altogether to go back to his day job of roofing. Having been spewed out by the star-making machine, he can only express his fall from artistic integrity in bitterly cynical terms:
“We in the Chiclet-manufacturing business are not about social justice, we’re not about accurate or objectively verifiable information, we’re not about meaningful labor, we’re not about a coherent set of national ideals, we’re not about wisdom. We’re about choosing what WE want to listen to and ignoring everyone else.”
An inevitability in American exceptionalism and the cultivating of online personas in which our tastes and predilections are catalogued and itemized on social networking sites, Richard is speaking for all of us in the iEverything generation, zoning out on iPods, tweeting on iPhones, watching downloaded vampire flicks on iPads—generally oblivious to the Big Picture, that of the world going to hell in a hand basket. People may give lip service to the environment but self-interest prevails in habit and identity.
(As an interesting aside, how much of Jonathan Franzen is in Richard Katz? Franzen is more famous for refusing Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club seal of approval when she praised his last novel, The Corrections, than he is for receiving the National Book Award for the effort. In a famous Harpers essay from 1996, “Perchance to Dream,” he claims he sought to follow the example of author William Gaddis, in that the novelist should get out of the way of the novel: “no matter how attractively subversive self-promotion may seem in the short run, the artist who’s really serious about resisting a culture of inauthentic mass-marketed image must resist becoming an image himself, even at the price of certain obscurity.” Franzen doesn’t need to apologize his dissing Opraholic housewives who in his estimation didn’t have the necessary literary intelligence to understand The Corrections. Nor does he need to explain why such a contrarian viewpoint might be useful dramatic fodder.)
By this time, Walter and Patty have left St. Paul for D.C., where Walter has forged an unlikely working alliance with Vin Haven, a Texan multi-billionaire whose fortune was built on America’s limitless capacity for energy consumption. For all his professional faults (he also hunts with Dick Cheney and is pals with Bush) Vin is a bit of a birder and wants to preserve some considerable land in coal-rich West Virginia where a certain songbird, a cerulean warbler, breeds in its annual migration to and from the South American tropics.
Of course, when you’re dealing with wealthy, ambitious Texans, it is good to beware of looking gift horses in the mouth: the devil in the deal is MTR, mountaintop removal, a term most familiar to coal companies and green activists, in which a mountain is blasted and pillaged of its minerals. But once plundered, it is the responsibility of the coal company for reclamation, that is, reforestation of the surface. Walter wants to be an insider, a voice of conscience ensuring that the coal companies keep their word and build a biodiverse forest that will serve as a sanctuary for the cerulean warbler and other migratory words. But the compromises are obvious— condoning mountaintop removal, coal extraction, and the eviction of local families with longtime ancestral roots.
But Walter is no starry-eyed college student mired in Manichean us-and-them trenches. It’s better than nothing and it gives him access to unprecedented capital for his more important project: putting population control on the mainstream activist agenda. The correlation between rising population levels and rising energy use is obvious. Walter believes it might be checked with responsible “breeding.” He wants to marginalize big families living in big houses with big lawns, which, though sensible of course, is like scribbling earnest agitprop over a picture postcard of the American Dream. In Walter’s own words: “We just want to make having babies more of an embarrassment. Like smoking’s an embarrassment. Like being obese is an embarrassment.”
In order to make it work, Walter has invited Richard to work with them on the message. He needs Richard because Richard is famous and cool and thus people want to follow his example: “Join rock legend Richard Katz in Washington this summer.” Richard, bitterly cynical yet generally apathetic, is more intrigued by Lalitha, Walter’s young, lovely, energetic Bengali-American personal assistant. It seems to Richard that Walter and Lalitha have, if not “a thing,” then some powerful chemistry going on and Lalitha has an obvious crush on Walter. She lives upstairs from Walter and Patty in D.C.. So it seems to Richard that their triangle has expanded into a quadrangle. And we are then well into our characters’ midlife crises, from which personal catastrophes— the stuff of page-turning literature— is wrought.
Nearly ten years after Franzen snubbed Oprah for recommending The Corrections, Oprah Winfrey came out last year with a ringing endorsement for Freedom. It is not surprising she would like the novel— Franzen has a gift of interweaving the micro and the macro, the family and the nation, that Leo Tolstoy was so tremendous at (Oprah is a big Tolstoy fan). But though I had posited some of Jonathan Franzen was in Richard Katz, it is likely that a lot more of Jonathan Franzen is in Walter Berglund. If Franzen wants his Cassandra calls for temperate energy use heeded, then he needs the largest possible audience and with Oprah comes her common touch, a medium that connects his ecological concerns to those millions of American housewives who might otherwise glance at his novel’s title and girth, shrugging, “Meh, too political.”
Franzen writes ‘social novels,’ a certain kind of fiction that holds a mirror up to the society that has produced the conditions that gives the social novel its raison d’etre. In this increasingly distracted media culture we’ve entered, it is becoming increasingly difficult to process the warning signs when we have the “democratic” options of channel changing and googling. With so many entertainment options, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize our limitations— social, political, economic, special— much less care. Walter puts it best while pitching his Free Space campaign to limit population growth to Richard:
“We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli.”
In that same Harper’s essay from 1996, Franzen wrote, “Expecting a novel to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society—to help solve our contemporary problems— seems to me a peculiarly American delusion.” It’s just a book and not only that but a work of fiction. But the purpose of art, unlike argument and documentary, is a transformative experience. Art affects the heart more than it does the head; more often it is emotion, rather than reason, that is the source of our convictions. And perhaps in literature a political message can become more palatable because in this forum ideas are explored rather than declared. Franzen, perhaps aware of the rare privilege bestowed upon him— a polemical artist with mainstream reach and generous publicity—is willing to challenge that delusion and like Walter Berglund, utilize his authorial star power to reach those normally impervious to such viewpoints.
But how successful can such ambitions be? It may very well depend on your existing political framework as well as preferential taste. Some critics believe that literature is blighted by politics, i.e. the world is already a bad place and we need not be reminded of it when our agenda is escapism. The Amazon.com page for Freedom is especially contentious. The book rates only three out of five stars; there are as many one star reviews as five. Not a few people hate Franzen, his ideas, and most especially, his books.
But should we take what Franzen said in 1996 at face value? That it is “delusional” that a novel could enter the national conversation as a voice of conscience counterweighing our extravagance? Should we make allowances that the world has changed enough in the fifteen preceding years that artists have been politicized, embracing a sense of duty in spite of the accompanying baggage of delusions, hatred, and ridicule? To my mind, it’s worth it. We are better off with Jonathan Franzen than without him. We need more event books populated by rational environmentalists and selfish nihilists instead of teenaged vampires and boy magicians.
Freedom defines a decade— it was the idea of ‘freedom’ that morally guaranteed our bombardment and, later, privatization of Iraq and it was ‘freedom’ behind the motivation of banks making questionable loans to people buying McMansions beyond their means to afford them. American freedom has hardly changed since we defeated the Soviets in the Cold War—that is, the freedom to buy whatever you want, whether its blue jeans or rock and roll LPs or Italian sports cars, the layman’s simple explanation why capitalism, perhaps imperfect, remains the world’s best economic model. Yet the correlation between freedom and purchasing power is so obvious it must confound the political philosopher that there is not more violence in the streets. When we say we want our MTV, we don’t mean we want to watch the cable network—we want lifestyle freedom, liberated from our economic limits.
When luxury becomes the end game of freedom (private jets and gated communications its apotheosis) getting there is going to be competitive. You could argue those who invested in defense and energy blue chips in the aftermath of 9/11 were vultures fattening on our freedom to bomb Islamic countries and pillage and pollute the earth but you might also say such investments were exceptionally prescient (or pragmatic). Walter and Patty’s son, Joey, a burgeoning Republican, suffers a massive crush on Jenna, a high-maintenance rich girl who believes that “…the world wasn’t fair and was never going to be fair, that there would always be big winners and big losers, and that she personally, in the tragically finite life that she’d been given, preferred to be a winner and to surround herself with winners.”
Joey has his own interesting subplot. It involves pro-war Jewish American think tanks and parasitical war profiteers. Joey, who has an independent streak and a contentious relationship with both Walter and Patty, becomes immersed in a shady business deal (involving a company modeled on Halliburton) that would make him incredibly wealthy but would almost certainly consequence in dead Americans overseas in Iraq. Herein lies the true freedom of a human being, that of trying to determine and act upon the right thing. With financial and personal needs, the answer is not always obvious:
“He didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know how to live. Each new thing he encountered in life impelled him in a direction that fully convinced him of its rightness, but then the next new thing loomed up and impelled him in the opposite direction, which also felt right.”
It’s not easy being free. Sometimes it takes an 18-years-old kid speaking off the cuff to frame the discussion perfectly:
“Isn’t that what freedom is for? The right to think whatever you want? I mean, I admit, it’s a pain in the ass sometimes.”
*This piece originally appeared in Heso Magazine.