Although Jonathan Franzen said "no" to Oprah's Book Club a few years ago when she wanted to promote "The Corrections," that does not mean he doesn't want his books to be read. If that were the case, he never would have written "Freedom."
"Freedom" is that rare marriage of masterly writing with characters so compelling that, by the end of their long story, you not only care about them, you know them. The literary devices Franzen uses to bring the Berglund family to life are not just clever, they are effective. Moving between time and place, from one person to another, from one crisis to another, just like families do, pulls you along in the way one is pulled into the life of an exciting new friend.
First there is the here and now, when you meet and make those first-impression judgments; then, you get her back story, or at least her version of it; time passes, you get to know each other better and start to fill in the blanks of your edited version of yourselves. More and more comes to light as you move forward together, staying in touch -- turning the pages -- because you really want to know what is going to happen next.
At the heart of "Freedom" are Patty and Walter Berglund, who, when we meet them, are a young urban couple living with their two children in a gentrifying neighborhood in St. Paul. There is zero time to settle in with them in the handsome Victorian they renovated themselves, since in the opening paragraph Franzen tells us they eventually move to Washington, D.C., that Walter is written up, unflatteringly, in the New York Times and that "there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds."
Patty and Walter met in college. Walter, the son of an alcoholic father, doesn't drink, is paying his way through law school and lives with a womanizing musician named Richard, who bears a strangely sexy resemblance to Moammar Ghadafi.
Patty has fled her ultra-liberal New York home and her parents (Mom is a state senator; Dad, a lawyer who does a lot of pro bono) who could not have been less interested in her stellar athletic skills or in pursuing charges against the son of a big political donor when he rapes their daughter. Patty and Walter are introduced when Richard starts sleeping with Patty's only nonbasketball friend (and stalker) Eliza, a troubled young woman with overly indulgent parents and a major drug problem.
At this point, "Freedom" is barely getting started. But, unlike "The Corrections," Franzen's other skillful exercise in family dysfunction, "Freedom," with all its pain, its alienation, depression and sex, is also overflowing with love. It is love that drives this tale, and drives its characters together and apart; romance, however, has nothing to do with it. What happens here is, for lack of a better term, reality.
Franzen has been compared to major writers of other hefty novels ("Freedom" weighs in at more than 550 pages) partly because of his deft handling of the sweep of time and large casts of characters, and also because of his sure grasp of the period -- the America -- in which he lives.
(He takes a little jab at this by having Patty reading "War and Peace" at one point and drawing parallels between Tolstoy's love troika and her own life as she examines its disintegration. And no, Franzen probably isn't our Tolstoy, but then, neither was Fitzgerald.)
This novel covers more than 30 years: Franzen's years, and the years of those reading him now, with Obama in the White House by the time the book ends. Down the road, it may date him, but from his perch atop the Amazon best-seller list, Franzen seems to delight in fine-tuning the details that so specifically define his work.
Will anyone who didn't frequent the free film fests at the Student Union in the '70s remember "The Fiend of Athens?" Do Al Gore and Florida voters still matter, even now? Will references to Bright Eyes, Jack White and Ben Gibbard hold up 10 years from now?
Whether they do won't affect the impact of the book, but the half-life of "Freedom's" politics could be another matter. The Berglunds and their extended family of friends are creatures entirely of their times, caught in corporate corruption, military machinations and the ongoing class struggles of a nation in which "the left is now center-right" and NPR, once reliably liberal, is now "wasting precious minutes of airtime every morning and evening -- on fatuously earnest reviews of literary novels and quirky musical acts." (And for our next guest? Mr. Franzen?)
Patty changes from the neighborhood cookie lady into a bitter, sarcastic shrew; Walter sells out his environmental dreams for corporate expediency; Richard takes years to find fame, only to find there's nothing there.
Freedom, the fundamental principle upon which the nation is based, finds expression here as the freedom to do whatever one wants without the burden of responsibility or the concern for consequences. It does not pretend to guarantee happiness.
But, had he looked around for a different title, Franzen may have settled on "Competition" or "The Game," since, on the way to their eventual enlightenment, that is what everyone is involved in: spouses, roommates, siblings, neighbors, friends and adversaries. Rivalry repeatedly trumps other responses. Patty the basketball player, Richard the sexual player, Walter playing the "good guy," the Berglunds' son Joey playing the "bad boy," and all along the way, everybody keeping careful score.
When we finally get to a chapter titled "Enough already," we also get to what in literary terms may be referred to as the "statement of theme," in which one character explains that, in this great country of ours, "You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to f--- up your life whatever way you want to."
That certainly proves true here. However, in his 50s now, Franzen also is inclined to give his characters, at least some of them, another chance. They do it the hard way, but then, no one ever said life, or literary fiction, was easy. When done this well, though, it is worth it.
Melinda Miller is deputy features editor at The News.
By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar Straus Giroux562 pages; $28