As we dust ourselves off and get up again after the gloomy, anxious years since 2001, literary writers have hurried to the presses with attempts to interpret what just happened. Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Dave Eggers, and Allegra Goodman have all released novels attempting to pin down the past decade’s malaise, but their efforts have thus far lacked the scope and ambition to create a recognizable portrait of the era. These writers focus on a particular aspect of those years—September 11, Hurricane Katrina, the ascendancy of the Internet—but fail to capture what it was to live in it. Yet if any writer is qualified to succeed where others have failed and reconcile us with the Bush years, it is Jonathan Franzen. His earlier works galloped across locations, decades, and social classes, delivering heaping servings of life.
The application of Franzen’s observational skills to the very recent past is perhaps the greatest achievement of “Freedom,” a formidable novel that teems just as richly as his previous work. By any objective measure of literary quality, “Freedom” is an exquisite machine: its satire is funny and incisive, its plot perfectly paced. Franzen skates past the aspects of fiction that trip up lesser writers: the sex scenes in “Freedom” do not bore; the political references seem natural. And yet it is a machine. While an unassuming humanism underlied Franzen’s earlier work, the characters and places of this novel seem subordinate to his coldly rational exploration of space and independence in modern America.
Walter Berglund lurks at the center of this expansive novel, and his faltering marriage and increasingly extreme environmental activism provide the framework for its loose plot. He is one of the best illustrations of Franzen’s skillful and ruthless approach to his characters—Walter is a father and the director of a conservation fund; he is rational, misanthropic, and also very good. It is a testament to the manipulative power of Franzen’s writing that although he dwells on Walter’s wretched youth, the love and patience with which he treats his family, and his sincere and laudable convictions, the only emotions he evokes are pity and contempt.
And so it is with each of the characters in “Freedom.” These people have bizarre habits and memorable voices; they are as carefully detailed as porcelain dolls that are meant to be admired but not played with. Franzen has skillfully created a population of grotesques, but his contempt for his own characters is untempered by sympathy. It is perhaps the only way to write a novel as intellectually ambitious as “Freedom,” and in no way does it undercut the quality or the satisfaction of the book. However, it does explain the impression that Franzen’s universe is governed not by human emotion but by clockwork.
At least one of the characters, the perceptive and prodigal son Joey Berglund, notices that something is amiss: when his life becomes dreary and lonely after the September 11 attacks, he believes that “the culprit, in hindsight, seemed almost like bin Laden but not quite. The culprit was something deeper, something not political, something structurally malicious.” But the most obvious structural malice in “Freedom” comes from Franzen himself, and his single-minded determination to create a perfect, tidy tragedy.
“Freedom” is a novel about space—each of its characters labors under the quaintly American notion that enough physical distance will resolve any problem, from Joey’s clingy girlfriend to the extinction of the cerulean warbler, the Appalachian songbird that Walter dedicates himself to preserving. Of course, Franzen’s characters run but they never successfully hide, and each subplot turns on the characters’ decisions to stop running and sacrifice freedom for responsibility. As each one does this, he or she is duly rewarded with a happy ending, and the characters march in lockstep towards this destiny. The single character who never gives up on freedom’s grandiose allure is smote by an angry deus ex machina. David Foster Wallace won attention and support when he advocated “passionately moral fiction,” but one doubts that Franzen’s Old Testament moral absolutism was quite what Wallace had in mind.
It is strange that, given Franzen’s preoccupation with the idea of space, he remains quite unconcerned with place. Walter and Patty Berglund move from St. Paul to Washington, D.C. in the novel, but beyond physical descriptions and ‘red’/’blue’ state stereotypes, both of these settings are oddly flat. St. Paul seems like particularly rich grist for Franzen’s mill, but it is ultimately reduced to a generic liberal subdivision where stay-at-home mothers while away “afternoon[s] of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint, and then Goodnight Moon, and then zinfandel.” If Franzen’s earlier novels were like films shot on location, “Freedom” unfolds against a painted backdrop.
Franzen has been hailed for resurrecting the social novel, but there was a reason it fell out of favor in the first place. His 2001 National Book Award-winning novel “The Corrections” showcased for contemporary readers the most appealing aspects of social realism: a sprawling collection of characters, ample opportunity for satire, and a rollicking narrative substantial enough to be at once bawdy and beautiful; uncomfortable and heartbreaking. “Freedom” expands on this template, and in doing so reveals the obtuse side of contemporary realism. Franzen’s players, though gorgeously rendered, are mere variables in what amounts more to a social and moral calculus than a novel.
—Staff writer Abigail B. Lind can be reached at email@example.com.