(Warning: There be spoilers.)
The other night I attended a dinner party where my table found ourselves trapped with a young woman who couldn't stop talking. She was quite pretty, in an scarily fit kind of way, and it was no surprise to learn that she was an obsessive runner. She was a graduate student teaching a college-level course who regaled us with the tale of a former student that was recovering from a car accident, and whom she suspected might be suffering from a head injury because "he keeps leaving me comments on Facebook telling me how hot I look." Nobody was rude enough to inquire whether finding her attractive was a telltale sign of brain damage. But I couldn't resist offering a bad pun to an interminable anecdote about her having ran a midnight jogging path that led to a graveyard: "You must have been dead tired," I said.
So yes, she was a vain girl who had married young and needed to reassure herself that she was still attractive to any men (or women) within proximity. At the same time she seemed, deep down, genuinely nice and repeatedly opened up discussion to the more soft-spoken guests around the table, even if the conversation had a way of circling back to her. I kept watching her constant hair-flicking and blouse-tugging and wondered if these gestures were conscious or subconscious, a form of flirting or a hint of anxiety? Then I thought that the best thing about Jonathan Franzen -- whose new novel, Freedom, I had just finished earlier that day -- is his ability to illustrate scenes such as this better than just about any author around, as well as indicate that there may be more than one way to interpret them.
The characters in Freedom reflect Franzen's fascination with the contradictions that govern our lives. One of his protagonists, Patty Berglund, is a hyper-agreeable housewife who is revealed to be a cutthroat competitor. Patty's husband, Walter, is a socially conscious do-gooder, kind-hearted to a fault, yet also in possession of a mean streak and a slew of grudges. His best friend, Richard Katz, is a self-centered rock star whose contempt for his own nature to be a good person. The Berglunds' teenage son, Joey, finds new ways to cheat on his young, slavishly-devoted wife, only to despair when he accidentally swallows his wedding ring. The knife's-edge between grand ambitions and base impulses has always been satirical fodder for Franzen, and Freedom is often a very funny book, widening its scope to discourse on a global issue like Walter's obsession with overpopulation in one passage (he wants to set up a Farm Aid-type concert for the cause, called "Free Space") only to narrow its focus to Joey frantically sifting through his own feces to find his ring in the next.
Yet Franzen is less interested in mockery this time than in his previous works of fiction (The Corrections, Strong Motion, The Twenty-Seventh City), less concerned with dazzling us with his vocabulary (a sense I had while reading that was confirmed by this interview). He takes the hoariest of narrative devices -- the love triangle -- and takes us deeper into the contradictions and confusions of a person in love than any writer I've encountered.
Freedom begins quite cleverly, a thirty-page overture of neighborly gossip about the disintegration of the Berglund family that reads similarly in tone to The Corrections and Franzen's earlier works. We learn that Patty cracked up, Walter sold out, and Joey moved out of the house on estranged terms with his parents. One of the local gossip-hounds -- pithily described as having been "active with the SDS in Madison and was now active in the craze for Beaujolais nouveau" -- sums up the Berglunds (and closes the chapter) by declaring to her husband, "I don't think they've figured out yet how to live." So far, so farcical. But then Franzen switches gears and offers a lengthy block of narrative to Patty's therapeutic journal -- an autobiography written by Patty in the third-person (which sounds more confusing than it is), where she reveals her childhood growing up with a high-minded though emotionally distant liberal family in New York, her sexual assault in high school, her athletic talents channelled into college basketball at the University of Minnesota, her complex, ever-evolving relationships with Richard and Walter, mismatched roommates (the irresponsible, cool rocker and the hopelessly sensitive nerd) who nonetheless share a deep friendship with each other.
Titled "Mistakes Were Made," Patty's informal memoirs at first seem too well-written (too novelistic), until it becomes clear that she's supposed to a person in long denial of considerable gifts. I felt emotionally wrung-out by the end of "Mistakes Were Made" -- though, to paraphrase Patty, not in a bad way. It's a vivid document of familial neglect, marital compromise, romantic idealism, and sexual desire; it features some of the strongest writing of Franzen's career.
Smartly, Franzen segues from the brain-rattling Patty (who is, on the page, as alluring as she is borderline psychotic) to a chapter through the clear-eyed cynicism of Richard Katz, who responds to an unexpected burst of professional success by dropping out of the music biz and building decks for a living. Katz, who'd had a whirlwind affair with Patty years into her marriage and channelled his feelings into a hit album titled Nameless Lake (his name for the site of their dalliance), is certainly the most colorful character Franzen has even written, the unapologetic guy down the hall from your dorm room who scored effortlessly with girls he loathed (perhaps not unlike the one mentioned at the start of this review), often spotted spitting tobacco into a cup and engaging in intellectual heavy-lifting, from Pynchon to Kant. Amusingly described as resembling the sexiest dictator alive, Muammar al-Gaddafi, except possibly less deferential toward the opposite sex than a despot with female bodyguards, Katz is nevertheless beguiled by Patty -- who doesn't correspond to the "athletic chick" template he's accustomed to -- and devoted to his friend Walter:
Not that Walter was so ordinary himself. He was at once hopelessly naive and very shrewd and dogged and well-informed. And then there was the complication of Patty, who, although she'd long tried hard to pretend otherwise, was even less ordinary than Walter, and then the further complication of Katz's being no less attracted to Patty than Walter was, and arguably more attracted to Walter than Patty was. This was definitely a weird one.
Passages like this are so vivid and so ample throughout the first half of Freedom that the second half, when the Franzenigan plot at last kicks in, with its overtures toward the political and cultural events of the past decade (The Iraq War, neoconservatism, radical liberalism, the financial crisis, the body armor controversy, viral video), it felt to me like a failure of imagination from an author who had appeared up to then to be following his characters wherever they wanted to take him, only to resort to the lever-pulling schematics that have always been his M.O. Some of this is still amusing, as when Walter flips out during a speech for a land-for-jobs agreement between his corporate bosses and West Virginia plebians. Some of it is pretty tedious, namely two chapters devoted to Joey's shenanigans involving an unattainable Jewish-American Princess and an unwise purchase of malfunctioning military vehicles headed for Fallujah.
This checklist stab at relevancy is interesting in conjunction with recent criticism by authors like Jennifer Weiner and Jane Smiley accusing the media of gender bias with all the attention toward Franzen's work. There is certainly some truth to this (though I recall Smiley receiving plenty of publicity and awards for her execrable A Thousand Acres a few years back). Yet the most intimate passages in Freedom -- namely his leap of empathy writing from Patty's point-of-view -- also leave the sense that Franzen has beaten them at their own game. Had Smiley written about the girl at that dinner party, she'd have either given her one disagreeable trait and left it at that, or else let her seem nice but actually be viperous (in other words, a hypocrite). Franzen, on the other hand, would capture all the quicksilver contradictions within that person and develop them into a consistent whole. This is by far the strongest quality of Freedom. Yet ironically it's one which, had he stuck with it, would not have garnered the book the notices that it's receiving.
There are other problems. For all of Franzen's ability to get into the headspace into so many different characters, he continues to have a Woody Allenish grasp of ethnicity. (The author tries hard to flesh out Lalitha, an Indian woman who rejects her traditional upbringing by signing on to Walter's overpopulation cause, but she comes across as simultaneously a cipher and a saint.) Yet I don't want to magnify the book's flaws. Freedom is a fascinating novel, one that occupies a welcome space on bookshelves. It's also a welcome return to fiction for Franzen, whose last two books, How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone, were, respectively, a collection of nonfiction essays and a personal history. The Discomfort Zone, in particular, was written with a puzzling detachment that made you feel like you were witnessing a confessional behind a vitrine display case. Franzen seemed uncomfortable with straight autobiography; he needs the guise of fiction to strive uninhibitedly for truth.
This is why, for all the speculation about possible meanings of the title and how many characters are based on real people, what Freedom is really about is the creative process itself. Patty's autobiography is seen on two occasions -- the first time as therapeutic navel-gazing, the second time with conscious and considerate attention directed toward a reader (Walter) -- and the difference is enormous: reflective, I'd suspect, of Franzen's own inner tension between writing for a readership and writing for himself. Richard Katz, too, reveals distinct sides of his art: the Nameless Lake album, written for himself (in which Katz conceals Patty's presence in his songs by making her a composite with another woman, as I suspect Franzen does with his literary characters); and then another instance near the end, for a particular listener, that becomes deeply touching.
There are a number of false endings in Freedom, poetic moments where another author may have seen fit to wrap things up. Yet Franzen keeps going, and to his credit the final passages work like a balm on all the anxiety generated before it. I'm not sure that Freedom completely convinces with the love showered on so many of its characters, but it's still a relief when it comes.