The Definition of Liberty
The new millennium brought along with it the dawn of a new age. The new age meant increased privileges, and for majority of the world, extended liberties. However, this lax in privileges has adversely affected the natural flow of things, from the symbiosis of humans and nature, to the more intimate and innate characteristics we possess. It is timely to ask how do our privileges and our newfound definition of liberty impact us, our environment, and the people around us.
In his fourth novel, Freedom, Jonathan Franzen takes a deep plunge into the heart and the very definition of the word freedom. Through the lenses of a middle class American family – Walter and Patty Berglund and their two children – Franzen painted a colorful and vivid portrait of the contemporary American family. Patty is the consummate homemaker whilst Walter is a timid albeit principled lawyer working for environmental advocates. Their children – Jessica and Joey – has their future set for them.
The Berglund family is the archetype of the modern liberal family. They mind their own business and play their roles of ideal neighbors perfectly. Everything seem fine enough. Their calm demeanor would soon slowly be pervaded by circumstances and elements that are beyond the family’s control. As the past slowly merges with the present and the future, the Berglunds are forced to place a proverbial microscope above their dynamics as a family and as individuals.
“People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.” ~ Jonathan Franzen, Freedom
Franzen masterfully painted a family that epitomizes the contemporary American home. He captured the concerns, the turmoils, and the challenges that families face. The Berglunds are not perfect. Each member of the family has his or her own flaws, concerns, and more importantly, stories to tell. Through their shared and individual experiences navigating the big canvass we all call life, Franzen wrote a well-balanced narrative that grapples the realities of American and family life.
But it is not just the realities of family life that Franzen dug into. The biggest theme buried underneath the pandemonium of the Berglund’s family life is the titular word, freedom. For Americans, and for those who constantly yearn for that singularly powerful green card, freedom is the biggest superlative that defines what it means to be a citizen or part of the Land of Opportunity. As the Star Sprangled Banner goes, “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
Extensively, Franzen explored how Americans view freedom. Like a lightweight feather, it was tossed around freely and easily. It was an identifier, an entitlement that sets them apart from others. Blatantly, it was interpreted as a license to engage in large-scale consumption without fear of retribution or any consequences. The cerulean warbler, a songbird, was the biggest portrayal of this disregard for consequences. As Walter campaigns for its preservation, he was derided as a liberal, an intellectual, an elitist. This sounds familiar as these are adjectives used by progressives to describe individuals seeking social responsibility.
Freedom wouldn’t be a contemporary American novel without plunging into politics. Through his rich depictions, Franzen underlined several seminal valid points about the American political arena. Over the years, the heart of politics evolved from actually accomplishing something to a royal rumble that is more concerned with beating or shaming one’s perceived opponent. Through this depiction, the novel found its niche as this depiction still resonates and will still echo into the foreseeable future.
“Each new thing he encountered in life impelled him in a direction that fully convinced him of its rightness, but then the next new thing loomed up and impelled him in the opposite direction, which also felt right. There was no controlling narrative: he seemed to himself a purely reactive pinball in a game whose only object was to stay alive for staying alive’s sake.” ~ Jonathan Franzen, Freedom
Whilst freedom was depicted through broad spectra and bigger pictures, it was also subtly portrayed in quotidian activities. Mundane scenes were microcosms from which other aspects of freedom were depicted. From a more nationalistic view of freedom, Franzen also immersed into interpretations of personal freedom. The thrills of sex and teenage lust, which reverberated all throughout the narrative, were the the biggest representations of personal liberty.
Freedom packs a lot of punch, covering a significant amount ground. Franzen did a commendable job in developing intricate characters whilst drawing the rough contours of the USA – from relative tranquility of Minnesota to the dazzle of New York City to the big political arena of Washington, D.C. to the hinterlands of West Virginia. Freedom is a peripatetic novel that also touches on a plethora of global themes and subjects such as terrorism, environmentalism, excessive consumerism and overpopulation.
Franzen’s writing made the narrative soar. Whilst the narrative tend to wander, his writing remained simple but transcendental. Albeit depicting a wide scope of subjects, he wrote it in nuggets of stories that are digestible. He covered a lot of complex subjects and themes but by keeping it in the ambit of the family, he kept the story relatable. Shades of humor gave the narrative a different complexion but what weighed down the narrative is the number of backstories which neither enhanced nor diminished the story’s overall message.
One of Franzen’s bigger accomplishment in Freedom is his good use of Walter. He is a good illustration of how frustration in good causes ultimately lead to a miserable life. We all fight for positive advocacy but despite our good intentions, obstacles will always block our way. Going head-to-head with these obstacles lead to pent up rage which, when unheeded, consumes us.
“He became another data point in the American experiment of self-government, an experiment statistically skewed from the outset, because it wasn’t the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn’t get along well with others.” ~ Jonathan Franzen, Freedom
Freedom branched out to several definitions of freedom. But more than that, it tackled how these liberties affected our environment, our society, and also the dynamics of our families. Franzen painted on a big canvass, drawing inspiration from how our lives revolved into how it is today. Through the lenses of a family, he came up with an epic that both comically and tragically captures the impositions of freedom. The struggles and confusions of the Berglunds define the sad realities of living in our time.
Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 19%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 10%
Freedom is indeed the epitome of an American novel. The writing, the themes, and the subjects are undoubtedly very American; not that it is such a bad thing. Unfortunately, I had several concerns with the novel. The narrative had the tendency to wander. I lament how the backstories buried the plot. It also reminded me of Smith’s On Beauty. Both were beautifully written but the plot was just a little too out there. As beautiful as Franzen’s intentions were, the story dragged. Nonetheless, Freedom is a thought-provoker. Not a smooth one but a thought-provoker nonetheless.
Author: Jonathan Franzen
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publishing Date: 2010
Number of Pages: 562
Genre: Domestic Fiction
Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul – the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter’s dream. Together with Walter – environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man – she was doing her small part to build a better world.
But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz – outre rocker and Walter’s college best friend and rival – still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become “a very different kind of neighbor.” an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street’s attentive eyes?
About the Author
Jonathan Franzen was born on August 17, 1959 in Western Springs, Illinois but grew up in Webster Groves in suburban St. Louis, Missouri.
In 1981, Franzen graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in German. From 1979 to 1980 academic year, as part of his undergraduate education, he studied abroad in Germany with Wayne State University’s Junior Year in Munich program. From 1981 to 1982, he studied on a Fulbright Scholarship at Freie Universität Berlin in Berlin.
Franzen’s literary career begun with the publication of his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City in 1988. While writing this novel. he worked as a research assistant at Harvard University’s Department of Earth and Plenary Sciences where he also coauthored several papers. Strong Motion, his second novel, was published in 1992. Whilst both books achieved modest success, it was The Corrections (2001) that made Franzen a household name. It won the 2001 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2002 James Tait Black Memorial Prize. It was also a finalist for several prestigious awards including the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
It would take nearly a decade before Freedom (2010), his fourth novel, would be published. It was listed by several literary critics as one of the best books for the year. His latest novel, Purity, was published in 2015. Apart from writing novels, he also wrote a score of short stories, essay collections and a memoir. He also received several awards, honors and other recognition.
He currently lives in Santa Cruz, California with his partner, writer Kathy Chetkovich.