‘Freedom’ underwhelms

Matthew Walther

Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” underwhelms. The effect of reading the novel, which is the puffed-up product of nine years spent “being alone,” as the author puts it, is one of deflation, as if a large balloon, much remarked-upon and comfortable in its horizon, was poked and beginning to slowly lose its air.

Freedom, like 2001’s “The Corrections,” which won Franzen a National Book Award, premises its origins in the tradition of American family novels a la Howells, Steinbeck, Cheever and DeLillo.  Authentic and would-be authentic precursors to Franzen seem to line themselves up like chickens. It is the story of the Berglund family of Minnesota (and later, Washington, D.C.) tracing the protracted rise and fall of Walter Berglund, a lawyer and environmental activist, his wife Patty, a former basketball star, their children Joey and Jessica, and Walter’s best friend and college roommate, Richard Kratz, a punk rock star. Franzen carefully establishes a narrative pattern in which Walter, Patty, and Richard (as in Howells’ “The Rise of Silas Lapham,” Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” and Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!,” a love triangle between three principal characters forms the major action of the novel) find themselves alternately pursuing and forgoing the various passions that define them.

Despite his expert plotting, however, questions remain about the soundness of Franzen’s narrative structure. More than a quarter of the novel, for instance, is given to us in the form of an “autobiography” composed by Patty at the behest of her therapist. Franzen’s decision to present Patty’s autobiography in third-person prose is puzzling and occasionally even frustrating; it suggests that the author is fundamentally uncomfortable with the first-person mode in fiction.

Throughout the novel, Franzen abandons high style for a gassy and pedestrian prose that occasionally scrapes the bottom (“There was no bullshit in the weeks that followed, either”) and barely reaches for the middle (“He sat holding his phone for a long time, for maybe half an hour, while the sky in the windows grayed toward rain”).

He relinquishes the broad, sympathetic satire of his earlier novels and instead dully reiterates the well-known leftist critique of the Bush Administration. In this sense, “Freedom” may offer something to the reader who considers herself above “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” but nevertheless does not take kindly to self-consciously constructed prose or metaphysical speculation. No passage here matches the apocalyptic lyricism of the opening of “The Corrections” or carries the stolid philosophical weight of Alfred’s Schopenhaurian musings in that novel. Those of us looking for someone to occupy the house that Nabokov built will continue to look elsewhere.