Franzen’s “Freedom” takes on our obsession with personal liberty

The hype surrounding the release of Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, dazzled book lovers everywhere, even if [conservative pundit] David Brooks was less than impressed.  The reviewer in the NYT Book Review section called it “a masterpiece of American fiction,”  Time magazine put Franzen on its cover, and Curtis Sittenfeld, writing for The Guardian, fittingly characterized the novel as “ . . . a long, juicy, scathing, funny and poignant indictment of contemporary American life.”  Masterpiece?  Maybe, but it is definitely a rollicking good read even at 560 pages.  It also covers most of the reasons we feel cranky about our lives today.

Walter Bergland, the husband of the couple whose lives form the basic narrative of the book, is a good man who has always taken care of the most important people in his life.  Of course this sets him up to be royally taken for granted and angry, but he does see life clearly most of the time.  In the middle of big discussion with his daughter, his old college roommate and his assistant, Walter speaks a profound idea.  He says:

It’s all circling around the same problem of personal liberties . . . 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 cantake away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.  That’s what Bill Clinton figured out – that we can’t win elections by running against personal liberties.  Especially not against guns, actually. (361)

That speech startles because of its truth.  Americans love their freedoms more than anything, even though we’ve been told repeatedly that freedoms are not free.  It helps explain why so many supposedly sane Americans were determined last November to vote for candidates opposed to the health care reform bill, whose mandates include the provision that everyone must have health insurance.  Despite the economic and public policy reasons, many Americans came out fighting against the entire bill because of this one provision.  They don’t seem to realize that our health care costs are hugely larger in proportion to our gross domestic product than those of any other developed country, while at the same time our quality of health care is sadly mediocre. The only way to fix this inequity is for everyone to be insured.  But Americans, including many who are grateful for their Medicare coverage, resist fiercely the idea that the government should be involved in their health care.

Maybe this also explains why so many middle class Americans can enthusiastically support tax cuts that offer them nothing (no trickle down for us!) while they offer the rich greater money and power.  Why, when we have the freedom to vote for the things we need and deserve, such as decent health care, good schools, social safety nets for our most vulnerable citizens, real jobs, and an end to preemptive wars, do we vote against our own self-interests?  Maybe because we love our freedom to vote any way we damned please? Ouch!  It appears that Franzen may have read Thomas Frank’s astute book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? which appeared about six years ago.

In addition to circling the dilemmas and costs of personal and political freedom again and again, Franzen’s novel also encompasses population control, ornithology, mountaintop removal mining, corporations both at home and in Iraq, rebellious and neglected children, depression, family dysfunction, marital loneliness, enduring love, and the rock music scene, past and present.  We enjoy it because it covers just about everything that worries and upsets us, at the same time that it is remarkably funny and thoroughly authentic.

Most people who finish Freedom will not regret reading it, but it is certainly not a perfect book.  The character of Patty is especially problematic, since she personifies vitality in the beginning of the book, then seems to fade.  The sections that she supposedly writes as  autobiography at the suggestion of a therapist do not always sound like Patty’s voice.  In addition, there are some plot manipulations that don’t feel quite natural.  But these are small complaints outweighed by the pure pleasure of living with these delectable Franzen characters.  The reader will identify with some, feel compassion for almost all of them and will miss them terribly when the book is finished.