Book review: Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
Freedom By Jonathan Franzen Fourth Estate, 562pp, £20
When, halfway through a novel, the main female character starts reading War and Peace and comparing her situation to Natasha Rostov's, the suspicion you may have already formed that the author is reaching for the heights is confirmed. Here indeed we have another shot at the Great American Novel. It is doubtless a noble ambition. "Ah! but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,/ Or what's a heaven for?", as Browning put it.
Nevertheless even Hemingway, in that alcohol-fuelled interview recorded in Lillian Ross's profile in the New Yorker, said nobody was going to get him into the ring with Mr Tolstoy. A wise remark: it is enough to write good novels and to let greatness take care of itself. Jonathan Franzen has written a good novel, an alert, intelligent, sympathetic book, with an interesting story, well-imagined characters and sharply written scenes. It is only the gestures at greatness which are unconvincing. As a novelist, he is good and entertaining. When he assumes the role of analyst of America's socio-political condition, he offers only intelligent journalism.
Freedom is really an old-fashioned family saga. The first section is set in St Paul, Minnesota, where Walter and Patty Berglund are "the young pioneers of Ramsay Hill - the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St Paul had fallen on hard times three decades earlier". They are, in the 1980s, environmentally conscious - "should you use cloth diapers?" Patty wonders. Patty, a former college basketball star, has cut herself off from her New York family. They are rich and artistic; father a lawyer, Jewish (but non-practising) mother a Democratic politician. The parents let Patty down badly when she had a horrible experience in her youth. Walter, she may be sure, will never do that. She sets out to be the perfect wife and mother of two lovely children, Joey and Jessica. It is too good to last.
Even so, the second part of the novel comes as a surprise. It is presented as "the Autobiography of Patty Berglund (Composed at her Therapist's Suggestion)". Although it is autobiography, it is written in the third person, and it is the story not only of her marriage but of the disintegration of a personality. The old triangle appears: wife, husband and husband's best friend. This is Richard Katz, a rock musician who, despite coming unvarnished from central casting, takes on an unexpected individuality - evidence of Franzen's ability to inhabit his characters.The conflict of loyalties these relationships set up is very well done. Richard "couldn't stop being nice to Walter, because he liked him; if he hadn't liked him so much, he probably wouldn't have wanted Patty; and if he hadn't wanted her, he wouldn't have been sitting here pretending." Indeed, they all love each other, and so tear each other and themselves to pieces.
As the marriage becomes strained, with Patty suffering from depression and incipient alcoholism, the novel moves to Washington where Walter, the conservationist, has taken a job with a big corporation. This is ethically dubious.
On the one hand he is given the opportunity to create a nature reserve, in West Virginia, specifically to ensure the survival of a bird, the cerulean warbler. On the other hand there is a trade-off: the removal of a mountain top so that coal may be mined. It is also necessary to bribe or bully the redneck occupiers of the land scheduled for the reserve to move.
At this point the narrative goes helter-skelter while also, oddly, moving more slowly. Public affairs and big questions obtrude themselves. There is the obligatory nod to 9/11 and more than a nod to the iniquities of the Bush administration, the Iraq war, and the ruthlessness of corporate America. The Berglund's son, Joey, now a college boy, becomes - horror of horrors - a Republican and gets involved in a scam delivering clapped-out East European, Soviet-era, equipment for Iraq.
Joey is one of the best-drawn characters in the novel, the golden boy unable to bear his mother's adoration. As an adolescent he had been her confidant, the one she told her secrets to because "nobody understood her the way he did. And then one morning he'd woken up hating her so violently it made his skin crawl and his stomach turn to be in the same room as her." This is good. This rings true.
The public theme of the novel is the remorseless irresponsibility of capitalism. No doubt many of the arguments advanced are worthy and the ethical dilemma which disturbs Walter - can you sup with the devil no matter the nobility of your motives and the length of your spoon? - is a real one.
But these questions are not fresh; nor are the answers. Franzen has no illuminating insights to offer. It is always a relief to get back to the private and personal. Patty, mostly indifferent to the world's problems, is, even when sunk in depression and self-pity, far more vital, sympathetic, and, yes, admirable. Even Richard, however conventional his disillusionment, is alive in a way that, for instance, Lalitha, the beautiful Bengali girl, who becomes Walter's adoring assistant, isn't.
One suspects that the righteous indignation which Republican politics, war, capitalist greed and the degradation of the environment inspire in Walter and Lalitha, are feelings the author shares.The public part of the novel does admittedly give us some good scenes, and a couple of finely dramatic ones, but there is far too much of the rhetoric (which a good editor might have cut).
Whereas the domestic parts of the novel will read every bit as well in 20 years time, the socio-political stuff will have at best the nostalgic interest of old newspapers. There are long passages which would have had Henry James shaking his head sadly and disapprovingly and saying "dramatise, dramatise".
Freedom is rather like James Robertson's recent equally ambitious novel, And the Land Lay Still. Both two authors have a fine feel for the rhythm and texture of daily life, the ability to create characters who realise themselves through their words and actions, a sympathetic understanding of relationships, including the rare ability to convey the sense of how these change over the years; both bring off the very difficult feat of following characters through the perplexing maze of marriage. Both are also able to show through their characters' lives how manners and ideas of morality shift with time and how this shift is both the cause and the consequence of social change. Both are good at intimacy. Both have a strong and yet generous moral sense.
Yet both allow scenes and dialogues to run on after they have made their point, and have a tendency to draw the reader's attention to the significance of what their characters say rather than leaving the words to speak for themselves. And both have burdened their novels with too much reportage of public affairs.
Freedom is not the Great American Novel, which in any case is probably a mirage. But it is a good novel, humane and perceptive. Patty especially is beautifully drawn - a real achievement.
It is very enjoyable - all the more so if readers, in the second half of the book, indulge in what Walter Scott called "the laudable practice of skipping".
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