Jonathan Franzen / Freedom (Fourth Estate 2010)
Let me fall over myself to be the next one to breathlessly call for the premature canonisation of this book. Franzen has written what might well be a masterpiece to sit neatly next to his previous masterpiece, 2001’s The Corrections. It is similar enough to satisfy all of us who wanted more of the same, and different enough to stand on its own as a major work.
It’s about a lot of things, but more than anything it is the novel of the marriage between Patty and Walter Berglund, and their attempt to live in the world of the noughties, more particularly the America of the noughties. At one crucial point Patty is reading War and Peace, and it’s a breaktakingly arrogant comparison for Franzen to invite, and yet one that is possibly justified. It doesn’t have the sweep of Tolstoy’s novel, but it spans the years and branches out to involve us deeply in the lives of secondary characters and make us care so much about them. And it has taken the pulse of a milieu so precisely, evoking what it’s meant to live in this crazy past decade, the Bush years, the Iraq War, the shadow of 9/11.
Patty has always lusted after Walter’s bad boy best-friend, Richard the alt-rocker. She has also set up her life in opposition to the ‘arty-farty’ New York bohemian lives of her family, and this is what drives her to excel at basketball and then marry Walter the Minnesotan environmental lawyer, disciplined, earnest and good. Walter’s problem is that he has always tried so hard to be good and despite succeeding splendidly at it, his life is not working out quite right. Patty is depressed and resentful, partly because he is so good, partly because their son Joey has abandoned her suffocating love and shacked up with the ‘white-trash’ girl next door. Adding to the pressure on Walter is the fact that he has taken up the cause of protecting an endangered species of bird and in doing so has ended up on the payroll of the very forces of greedy conservatives he set out to spend his life opposing.
The novel has a disorientating time structure and several shifts in narrative point of view. It starts out with a somewhat distant omniscient narrator relating the story of Walter and Patty through the 1990s, partly through the eyes of their neighbours, giving hints of much of the plot to be developed later on. Then we shift to Patty’s confession, written at the behest of her therapist in the early 2000s. She writes in the third person to distance herself a little, telling the story of her life as a kind of apology to Walter, calling it ‘Mistakes Were Made’. After this we have the actual core of the novel (just when we thought Patty’s confession might be that), a third person narration stretching from p.191-p.503 and telling the events of 2004, when everything comes to a head, through sections seen through both Walter’s eyes and those of his rebelling son Joey. There are two short epilogues, Patty’s conclusion to her confession written six years later, and then, giving the novel a symmetry, a third person narration rounding off Walter and Patty again told through the eyes of the neighbourhood.
It is a deeply perceptive novel. Franzen is smart and cynical, but he knows how to break my heart and then patch it up again with hope. He knows our inner worlds, and he also knows the outer political worlds. He seems to know everything.