February 29, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Bleak freedom

By |2018-03-21T18:42:49+01:00January 10th, 2011|"Scriptorium"|
Jonathan Franzen.

onathan Franzen’s “Freedom” is here to say: You may be many things in your life — but never free to change the person you are. Franzen claims he casually “slapped a title” onto this novel. But it wasn’t “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” So readers will figure these abundant (nearly 600 pages) somehow relate to title. And they do. Sardonically. This scenario reveals bleakest of human bondage to one’s character type. A near-Calvinistic determinism. NB: to all social networkers, rewriting your profiles: “Freedom” ridicules the notion of re-defining your role, or even notably improving it.

Makes you wonder: Does that JF rule apply to serial killers as well? Just asking.

As in his 2003 best-seller “The Corrections,” Frenzen weaves a cast through the passage of decades. Again, his tale involves dysfunctional families — and a generational psychic contamination.

For over thirty years, “Freedom” tracks an average Middle America suburban couple: tall, thin Walter and blonde, pony-tailed Patty Bergland. (Yes, they had dysfunctional parents.) Even so, in early marriage they managed to help gentrify a rundown Minnesota neighborhood, and produce two kids: Joey and Jessica. Patty’s a stay-home Mom, the resource for all neighbor queries, “a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen.” Walter is “always so nice.” Beneath this surface lie the traits that will be their character constants, and affect their children: She suffers anxiety depression; he bears “deeply repressed angers.”

Patty married Walter because he’s her survival script. His stability and constancy support her depressions. Walter married her because he wanted to be utterly needed. He’s the leader. His children may reject him in that family role. But they imitate his rigid necessity in their own lives.

Since the Berglands, all four, hold to their latest, needy routine as to lifeboats, their detailed days can get repetitious. So Franzen’s use of Patty’s two auto-bio memoirs is a brilliant narrative stroke to cut the boredom. These first-person cries for acceptance strongly bookend his story — a technique that worked so well in “Corrections.”

Number one arrives near novel start, and lends some depth to Patty’s cloth vs. disposable diaper days. The second section pleas forgiveness for human weakness, and leads into the novel’s crescendo finale.

In between, Franzen unhappily replicates 1970-2005 cast tics familiar those who have paid attention to the themes of long-running TV sitcoms. Patty could’ve starred in a show called “At Home Alone,” Walter in one called “The Avenging Angel.” Rock musician Richard Katz will have been seen in “Sleeping Around.” He’s been Walter’s buddy since college days, and Patty’s sometime secret lover. After music, his lifelong top pleasure is groupie sex. Though Walter and Patty are our chief protagonists, Katz is the third man throughout story arc. As to similarities? All three adapt surprisingly well to circumstance across the years. Even reluctantly. Yet theirs are themed variations, bound within hard-wired personal mindsets.

Late in her failing marriage, Patty will use her high school jock profile to become — surprise! — sports club receptionist and part-time basketball coach.

Son Joey rebels against his mother’s buddy treatment. He likes to be totally in control, have things his way. He and girlfriend Connie have enjoyed a mutual, sexual and emotional dependency since he was eleven and she twelve. In their twenties, Joey marries her. After all, she lends him money, says it’s OK to sleep with other women, and defers to his every wish.

Bergland daughter Jessica also likes to be in charge. Of well-ordered event. This fixation will ruin her adult life. But not lead her to redefining goals.

As years pass and eco-trends gain traction, Walter turns his save-the environment interest as private rage outlet. To gain tiny refuge for the world’s remaining 1,000 cerulean warblers he promotes MTR (mountain top removal). Although this raw devastation of 14,000 West Virginia acres will allow his millionaire sponsors free mining and mineral interests. In these broadly satirical chapters JF frazzles ingenuous eco do-gooders.

In sum, this author’s final take on human personality is highlighted by cynical rocker Katz: “…it’s possible that you are freer if you accept what you are and just get on with being the person you are.” JF’s people-take isn’t exactly upbeat.

But… Franzen rules a polished craft. “Freedom” is not a great book, but quite good. JF enlivens routine with fresh — if not illuminating — imagery, and is finely tuned to dialogue. He also knows the structural effect of a slam-bang ending, and develops powerful closing chapters. Beautifully wrought and moving passages. In which a high-tension mix of human frailty and raw emotion join to create “a slim glimpse of hope.”

Would that he had gotten to this depth of compassion, and produced such splendid writing, much much sooner.

About the Author:

Former Rabelais scholar Patricia Fogarty honed her skills in the New York City publishing world. She lives in Rome and has been the magazine's book columnist for a decade.