Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar; but a family is rarely just a family. Not in novels, anyway, where families tend to become metaphors for something else, something bigger: for the society in which they live, or perhaps for human relations in general. The Berglunds, the family at the heart of Jonathan Franzen’s sweeping yet intimate new novel, seem at times to stand for America itself—or, more specifically, for what Franzen refers to as “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.”
With so much metaphorical weight to bear, it is no wonder that the Berglunds bend under the pressure. Admittedly, they started out strong. “Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill,” we learn on the novel’s first page, “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.” Gifted with healthy doses of American pluck, reinforced by a coating of Midwestern (specifically, Minnesotan) reserve, these Volvo-driving, Whole Foods-shopping petit bourgeois will, within a few years, transform their neighborhood into an enclave of genteel civility.
And yet: we are made aware early on that the Berglunds are heading for a fall, or rather, a series of increasingly embarrassing and painful falls. Walter, we learn in the novel’s second sentence, will move from St. Paul to Washington, where he will endure a professional embarrassment significant enough to be reported in the New York Times. (His failure, it is later revealed, relates to his efforts to save threatened North American songbirds and derives from a fatal combination of good intentions and imperfect judgment, the same combination that will make his employment of his young and beautiful assistant, Lalitha, a marital catastrophe waiting to happen.) Their son Joey, meanwhile, will find himself drawn by his business partner—“ a bush-league sociopath who would end up in jail or in Congress soon enough"—into a scheme to sell rusted out and entirely useless truck parts to the U.S. military for use in Iraq. As for Patty, a former star athlete with a wrecked knee, an overzealous appreciation for wine, and too-intimate relationships both to Joey and to Walter’s best friend Richard Katz, it is perhaps sufficient to observe that a considerable portion of the book is comprised by her confessional memoir, "Mistakes Were Made: Autobiography of Patty Berglund by Patty Berglund. (Composed at Her Therapist's Suggestion.)"
Like Franzen’s previous novel, the National Book Award-winning The Corrections, Freedom is a big, ambitious, somewhat baggy book that goes slack in places and is, at times, a bit arid. But it is hard not to admire the ambition; and the good paragraphs tend to outweigh, and make one forget, the insufficiently polished and hurried-through. Franzen is one of a relatively small number of contemporary novelists who can work successfully on this sort of scale, and who is able to create characters of genuine complexity and emotional depth.
For me the most satisfyingly complex character is Richard Katz, the Berglund’s family friend (and, at times, worst enemy). A punk-rocker turned alt-country musician, Richard is intelligent but suspicious of the uses to which intelligence can be put, irresistible to women but increasingly disgusted by the shallowness of his relations with them, and so thoroughly destabilized by the success of his new band (whose music is, to his horror, nominated for a Grammy and played on NPR) that he refuses to record a second album with them, fleeing instead into a life of reclusiveness and manual labor. My favorite moment in the book finds Richard standing on the roof of a building in lower Manhattan faced with an attractive young woman, the latest in a long series of attractive young women he has flirted with and, more often than not, bedded: “Katz felt very, very tired. To be unable to bring himself to play for even ten seconds the game that Caitlyn was interested in playing with him was to understand the allure of death. To die would be the cleanest cutting of his connection to the thing—the girl's idea of Richard Katz—that was burdening him. Away to the southwest of where they were standing stood the massive Eisenhower-era utility building that marred the nineteenth-century architectural vistas of almost every Tribecan loft-dweller. Once upon a time, the building had offended Katz's urban aesthetic, but now it pleased him by offending the urban aesthetic of the millionaires who'd taken over the neighborhood.”
To excessively desire the approval of others makes one a slave to their opinions. But to fear and despise one’s fellows’ approval, as Katz does, is no more liberating: the burden of others’ ideas of us weighs as heavily in the one case as in the other. In the end, freedom is a paradox, and perhaps an unattainable ideal. And because it understands this, Freedom is, in the end, a fine, impressive, and memorable novel.