The Triumphs & Failures of Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’

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It’s easy to imagine Jonathan Franzen leaning back in an expertly designed office chair, grinning ever so slightly and slowly shaking his head at the moment he types the final period of Freedom, his latest novel. In fact, it’s easy to imagine that leaning back in an expertly designed office chair, grinning ever-so-slightly, and slowly shaking his head is Franzen’s favorite pastime. But he’s earned some self-congratulation, and though I’m reluctant to use cringe-worthy words like “triumph” or “accomplishment,” I certainly wouldn’t be the first or last to do so. In the decade since his last novel, The Corrections, a National Book Award winner, I can’t think of a novelist more fiercely loved and hated. Those on Team Franzen usually coo about how deftly he filleted our culture in The Corrections, how deeply recognizable the Lambert’s are, and how utterly un-put-downable and fun the book was to read. Franzen’s detractors argue that he’s a bore, that The Corrections is just a regular old novel, that it doesn’t push or change or explore what a novel could be, that he’s anti-experimental and wants too badly to be the American Tolstoy.

Just mentioning his name to a crowd of bookworms can be a literary litmus test, more or less dividing those who are content to just read a long, well-plotted novel of social criticism, from those who want a novel to be more than just a novel, who want a novel to bring literature forward with acrobatic leaps. Franzen fans are joined by a large swath of the general American public that read (or at least bought) The Corrections. Anti-Franzenites might feel the need to mention what a twit Franzen is, or quote some overly smug or elitist thing that Franzen has said in an interview or essay, of which there are many. Googling ‘Jonathan Franzen Smug’ generates 7,250 results.

But Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, has the potential to win over at least some of those who eschewed him in the past. The novel follows the life of Patty Berglund and her unbalanced marriage to the hapless but optimistic Walter. But what starts out as your usual, third-person Franzen novel takes a sharp and sudden turn when Patty begins to write her autobiography, a whole novel on its own that’s written in the first-person once removed. Patty’s own voice is neurotic, vulnerable, and compelling at a whole new depth for Franzen, who has never let a first-person narrator slip into any of his previous novels, and who’s never realized a female character so completely. A sexual trauma from Patty’s adolescence is woven in subtly and with palpable believability. All the dark complexities of Patty’s too-close relationship to her son and too-distant relationship with her daughter appear in fine relief. After Patty’s autobiography, the third-person returns to meet Walter’s best friend and Patty’s ex-almost-lover, Richard Katz. Walter and Patty’s marriage is focused on more fully, including a lot of fights during which Walter and Patty use each other’s insecurities as weapons — a particular specialty of Franzen’s. But despite all the Berglunds’ shouting, Franzen smuggles in a a message about the potency of forgiveness in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances.

The less satisfying parts of Freedom are the times when a character goes on a rant that makes him feel less like a character and more like a crucible of Franzen’s white-hot opinions. Recovering rock star Richard Katz flies off the handle during a hysterical interview that a precocious high schooler then posts on his blog:

“Q: So what’s next for Richard Katz? A: I’m getting involved in Republican politics. Q: Ha ha. A: … I’ve been given the opportunity to participate in the pop-music mainstream, and manufacture Chiclets, and help try to persuade fourteen-year-olds that the look and feel of Apple Computer products is an indication of Apple Computer’s commitment to making the world a better place. Because making the world a better place is cool, right? And Apple Computer must be way more committed to a better world, because iPods are so much cooler-looking than other MP3 players, which is why they’re so much more expensive and incompatible with other companies’ software, because—well, actually it’s a little unclear why, in a better world, the very coolest products have to bring the very most obscene profits to a tiny number of residents of the better world. This may be a case where you have to step back and take the long view and see that getting to have your very own iPod is itself the very thing that makes the world a better place. And that’s what I find so refreshing about the Republican Party. They leave it up to the individual to decide what a better world might be. It’s the party of liberty, right? That’s why I can’t understand why those intolerant Christian moralists have so much influence on the party. Those people are very antichoice. Some of them are even opposed to the worship of money and material goods. I think the iPod is the true face of Republican politics, and I’m in favor of the music industry … standing up proud and saying it out loud: We in the Chiclet-manufacturing business are not about social justice, …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 everything else…. We’re about giving ourselves a mindless feel-good treat every five minutes. …We’re about persuading ten-year-old children to spend twenty-five dollars on a cool little silicone iPod case that costs a licensed Apple Computer subsidiary thirty-nine cents to manufacture. Q: Seriously, though. … Do you think successful musicians have a responsibility to be role models? A: Me me me, buy buy buy, party party party. …What I’ve been trying to say is that we already are perfect Republican role models.”

To me, this passage scans as funny. I love Katz’s neurotic crescendo, and it’s always so satisfying to see a character become unhinged. This particular rant, however, feels oddly misplaced. I didn’t buy that Richard Katz, the down-on-his-luck-yet-once-celebrated-rocker, really thought of any of this on his own. We already know Franzen to be the type of author who doesn’t want an Oprah logo on his novels lest they become “Oprah Book Club” books, the author who called Michiko Kakutani the “stupidest person in New York.” He’s made it pretty clear that he dislikes any kind of monopolization of culture. But, Richard Katz? I’m not so sure.

It’s easy to see Franzen’s fingerprints on the character of Richard Katz: Katz had a really big hit a decade ago, was nominated for a Grammy (Franzen was nominated for the literary equivalent, a Pulitzer), and is now anxiously working on his comeback album (ahem, the novel in your hands.) Perhaps this is why Richard Katz was my least favorite character, the section of the book he dominates the one I found easiest to walk away from. Franzen is at his best when his persona is nearly absent from the page. This probably means I like Franzen’s writing a lot more than I like Franzen, the author.