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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Freedom

by
Jonathan Franzen


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Freedom



Title: Freedom
Author: Jonathan Franzen
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010
Length: 576 pages
Availability: Freedom - US
Freedom - UK
Freedom - Canada
Freedom - India
Freedom - France
Freiheit - Deutschland
Libertà - Italia
Libertad - España

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Our Assessment:

B : good flourishes and stretches, but an odd attempt at a state of the nation/family piece

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic D 10/2010 B.R.Myers
Bookforum . 9-11/2010 William Deresiewicz
Christian Science Monitor B- 1/9/2010 Yvonne Zipp
The Economist A+ 26/8/2010 .
Entertainment Weekly A- 25/8/2010 Thom Geier
Esquire . 9/2010 Benjamin Alsup
Financial Times . 4/9/2010 Hari Kunzru
FAZ A 4/9/2010 Felicitas von Lovenberg
The Guardian A 18/9/2010 Blake Morrison
Harper's . 11/2010 Christine Smallwood
The Independent A 17/9/2010 Tim Walker
Independent on Sunday A 26/9/2010 Simmy Richman
London Review of Books . 7/10/2010 James Lever
The LA Times A 20/8/2010 David L. Ulin
The Nation . 15/11/2010 John Palattella
The National A 20/8/2010 Akiva Gottlieb
The New Criterion . 11/2010 Stefan Beck
The New Republic . 14/10/2010 Ruth Franklin
New Statesman . 27/9/2010 Leo Robson
New York . 23/8/2010 Sam Anderson
The NY Rev. of Books . 30/9/2010 Charles Baxter
The NY Times A+ 16/8/2010 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A 29/8/2010 Sam Tanenhaus
The Observer . 19/9/2010 Curtis Sittenfeld
Prospect . 10/2010 Tom Chatfield
San Francisco Chronicle A- 27/8/2010 Jess Walter
The Spectator A+ 25/9/2010 Philip Hensher
Svenska Dagbladet . 2/10/2010 Eva Johansson
The Telegraph . 24/9/2010 Keith Miller
TLS . 22/9/2010 James Campbell
Wall St. Journal B+ 20/8/2010 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post B 25/8/2010 Ron Charles
Die Zeit . 9/9/2010 Ursula März


  Review Consensus:

  No consensus; broad range of opinions -- but many very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) 576-page monument to insignificance. (...) But if Freedom is middlebrow, it is so in the sacrosanct Don DeLillo tradition, which our critical establishment considers central to literature today." - B.R.Myers, The Atlantic

  • "The book's architecture is impressive but doesn't really solve the problem of diffuseness. The novel lacks the narrative drive of The Corrections, as evidenced also in the materials of the plot. Gone is the antic invention of the earlier book (.....) Freedom stays at the level of the earlier novel's least successful passages" - William Deresiewicz, Bookforum

  • "The brilliant writing and caustic wit that earned Franzen a National Book Award in 2001 is in ample evidence, as is his willingness to go big or go home. But so is the contempt that ultimately put me off his last novel, The Corrections. The pages are coated with a film of disdain so thick it almost comes off on your hands. (...) Franzen’s acid sense of humor is the book’s chief joy, along with some truly terrific dialogue. Readers who seek out the pleasure of words strung perfectly in sentences will find much to admire in Freedom. Those who need to like the characters they’re reading about, however, should flee." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Mr Franzen’s work will not appeal to those seeking sharp-edged experimentalism in their fiction. But for readers who believe the novel to be an old-fashioned thing that, at its best, should bring alive fully imagined characters in a powerful narrative with a social context, his new book will be a huge draw. The author has spent the past ten years doing what he does well and making it better. Freedom has all its predecessor’s power and none of its faults." - The Economist

  • "Franzen performs a kind of literary MRI on the marriage, micro-slicing its many nuances. He innately grasps how desires can shift in an instant, and how getting what we want can lead to disappointment or self-doubt. And he remains a keen observer of modern culture (.....) Freedom isn't flawless (.....) But this is a deep dive into a fascinating family that feels very real, and fully grounded in our time." - Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly

  • "The Corrections is a great novel. So is Freedom. (...) This is a book that acts as though people still had long conversations, still read long books." - Benjamin Alsup, Esquire

  • "The book’s sheer size signals it as a statement -- and though it’s not without faults, Freedom is undoubtedly an achievement, standing head and shoulders above the host of recent American novels which (post-Corrections) have attempted to hold the same territory. (...) Franzen’s wish to tackle complex questions through the medium of the realist novel sometimes feels strained but, by and large, his characters can bear the weight he places on their shoulders." - Hari Kunzru, Financial Times

  • "Freiheit erzielt mit den jahrhundertelang erprobten Mitteln der Literatur -- Tolstois Krieg und Frieden wird mehrfach erwähnt -- jene Wirkung, die heute vor allem Fernsehserien zugeschrieben wird, mit denen die Romane dadurch zunehmend in eine ungleiche Konkurrenz gezwungen werden. Dieses Werk würde ein solches Kräftemessen mit Leichtigkeit bestehen -- weil es nicht zu Eskapismus, sondern zur Versenkung einlädt. (...) Unangestrengt hat Jonathan Franzen sein politisches, ethisches Leitmotiv in die reiche Textur seines Romans gewoben, der die willkommene kleinen Freiheit der offenen Straße ebenso beschwört wie die Qual, sich für eine Partei, einen Beruf oder einen Menschen zu entscheiden. (...) Freiheit ist die Fortführung der Korrekturen mit souveräneren Mitteln. Jonathan Franzen schreibt lässiger, leichter, weniger offensichtlich auf Wirkung bedacht." - Felicitas von Lovenberg, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "In his Harper's essay Franzen defined the fiction he admired as "tragic realism", an antidote to "the rhetoric of optimism that so pervades our culture". All the elements for tragedy are present in Freedom: war, rage, grief, jealousy, hubris, vengeance, illicit passion. Lousy childhoods leave their impress, parental flaws are passed down and material comfort is no stay against self-pity. But the protagonists -- Patty especially -- are constantly making new discoveries about themselves: redemptive insights, lessons in the contradictoriness of the human heart. And bleak though the prospects look, the reader approaches the last pages with some hope that the tale won't end in tragedy." - Blake Morrison, The Guardian

  • "Freedom is big and shambling and crammed with an abundance of stuff. (...) The teem is seductive and invigorating. Freedom is powerfully pleasurable to read. It is rife with casual brilliance -- deft, often funny psychological insights built from everyday vernacular, the genius it takes to reveal the language as we all use it." - Christine Smallwood, Harper's

  • "This is perhaps Franzen's primary skill, to give each of his characters such comprehensively realised psychologies. (...) Though it contains a few too many lengthy dialogues about the correct approach to environmentalism, Freedom is not lofty or detached. It's a warmer book than The Corrections; one that loves its characters for their flaws, not in spite of them. Its pages fly by like a pulp thriller -- and it's only half as long as War and Peace." - Tim Walker, The Independent

  • "Writing in prose that dazzles only with its frightening depth of insight, Franzen has now written the two novels (one pre- and one post-9/11) that best define modern America. (...) Freedom foreshadows nothing less than the death of the liberal dream; the brutal truth that when not following the path laid out for you becomes the path laid out for you, we are all lost souls trapped by the technology at our fingertips and our own infinite possibilities. Freedom is that endangered species: a good read that is also an important book." - Simmy Richman, Independent on Sunday

  • "Freedom is Franzen’s smoothest novel. It is patient, decorous, sure of itself and, in that its author sounds like himself throughout, definingly Franzenesque. (...) But this is a continuously unsurprising novel. (...) The overall effect is of TV: a pleasantly classy mini-series, taking its time, with mild cliffhangers. (...) It’s possible that the sheer length of Freedom, the cruising chug of its smooth unshiftable soapy rhythm, is the main reason the novel is so disappointing." - James Lever, London Review of Books

  • "For Franzen, this is the trick: not to outgrow who we are but instead to accept it, and in so doing, to accept the world of which we are a part. That's the freedom to which the title is referring, the freedom at the center of this consuming and extraordinarily moving book." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(I)n Freedom, Franzen is an amateur ethnographer impersonating a fiction writer. His novel is overstuffed with finger-puppet characters and the clutter of contemporary life" - John Palattella, The Nation

  • "Like its predecessor, Freedom is a bracingly earnest, ethically serious psychological epic that introduces and exploits its characters’ mistakes and foibles, then challenges itself to discover myriad ways to eventually forgive them their trespasses. (...) After all the disquisitions, lectures, and sardonic comments, Franzen has finally stepped up to the plate to deliver an emotional wallop to the jaded masses." - Akiva Gottlieb, The National

  • "That’s Freedom, more or less -- a book that is marvelously observant, at great length, about a time and place that has little to recommend itself to the literary imagination. It’s basically journalistic, Tom Wolfe for readers who won’t abide Wolfe’s septuagenarian howlers." - Stefan Beck, The New Criterion

  • "Freedom, like The Corrections, is a Way We Live Now novel, consummately of its moment. Neither of these books could have been written in precisely the same way at any other point in American history. (...) Franzen is better than anyone else at work today at delivering the kind of self-reflective portrait of contemporary life that we seem to crave -- he gives us us, which is most of what we seem to want; and he has a gift for seductive undulations of plot and heart-tugging convulsions of character. But his prose is homely and lazy (.....) This strikingly inert and unimaginative language may be owed to his all-consuming, almost ethnographic anxiety about getting the appearances right -- but why should a novelist sound the way his characters sound? Worse, the stylelessness may be owed to the limitations of the vision at the heart of his book. (...) This is where Franzen’s novel founders. He is all mirror and no lamp. He substitutes the details for the big picture, a hyper-realistic portraiture for genuine psychological insight." - Ruth Franklin, The New Republic

  • "Jonathan Franzen does not possess, or anyway does not exhibit, the subtle "cluster of gifts" -- implying, dramatising -- that Henry James celebrated in The Art of Fiction. What he does possess is an ability to place the reader right in the thick of his characters' lives, so that their pain becomes ours. He baldly states their problems and greedily ransacks their thoughts, and although he prefers rumination and paraphrase to the dramatic scene, his discoveries about a character's intentions or ideals are repeatedly tested in the sphere of action against their conduct. He has a gift for generating details and scenarios that bring out latent conflicts. Franzen's method is trenchant and energetic without being brutish or crude; and he shows tremendous skill in his arrangement of material and distribution of detail." - Leo Robson, New Statesman

  • "Freedom is a close cousin to The Corrections: a social-realist epic about a depressive, entropic midwestern family being swallowed and digested by the insatiable anaconda of modernity. (...) And, indeed, the book would probably be insufferably dull if it weren’t for the fact that it also happens to be a work of total genius (.....) I hadn’t expected to be nearly so engaged by all of this. (...) My irritation with crabby manipulative Franzen is, after all, just a testament to the life of his characters, who are so real I desperately want him to leave them alone, and let them run free." - Sam Anderson, New York

  • "Freedom attempts to come to terms with the Bush years and is finally defeated by them. Having said that, I need to add that the book is often inspired and eloquent. Its ambitions are praiseworthy, as is its fury. Its heart is rather beautifully on its sleeve much of the time. The large audience for which Franzen’s novel is intended will no doubt find it written with consistent intelligence and energy. But it cannot solve the problems it regards as crucial, which is our loss and probably our fate." - Charles Baxter, The New York Review of Books

  • "With this book, he’s not only created an unforgettable family, he’s also completed his own transformation from a sharp-elbowed, apocalyptic satirist focused on sending up the socio-economic-political plight of this country into a kind of 19th-century realist concerned with the public and private lives of his characters. (...) But it is neither this heavy-handed leitmotif nor the twisty, Dickensian plot (which has Walter and Joey getting involved with a ruthless Halliburton-like company) that lends this novel its narrative heft and hold on the reader. Rather, it is Mr. Franzen’s characters and his David Foster Wallace-esque ability to capture the absurdities of contemporary life (...) Writing in prose that is at once visceral and lapidary (.....) Mr. Franzen has written his most deeply felt novel yet -- a novel that turns out to be both a compelling biography of a dysfunctional family and an indelible portrait of our times." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Freedom is a still richer and deeper work -- less glittering on its surface but more confident in its method. (...) Like all great novels, Freedom does not just tell an engrossing story. It illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author’s profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew." - Sam Tanenhaus, The New York Times Book Review

  • "If you loved The Corrections as much as I did, then cracking open Freedom is a bit like returning to a restaurant where you had an outstanding meal. Your expectations may be high, but it's still possible to come away feeling satisfied -- and if we're lucky, perhaps we'll all eat there again before another nine years go by." - Curtis Sittenfeld, The Observer

  • "It's a fair bet -- as the marketers say -- that if you liked The Corrections, Franzen's 2001 National Book Award-winning family epic, you will love Freedom. Here's another Midwestern family, another surgical exploration of the spent body and wretched soul of America, another -- there's really no smaller way to put it -- inquiry into the paradox of being human. The book's flaws also seem distinctly Franzenesque, perhaps inseparable from his outsize talent and ambition. Chief among them is the way dialogue lapses into filibuster." - Jess Walter, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(T)he mesmerising heart of the novel lies in Franzen’s unflinching and psychologically flawless expansion of the lives and passions of his central characters, through which history flows like a river. (...) A great American novel is unmistakably what Freedom is." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator

  • "Men med Freedom är han tillbaka i högform igen. Här, precis som i den förra romanen, står en amerikansk medelklassfamilj i centrum, vars liv och öden får belysa det omvälvande decennium vi just har genomlevt. (...) Freedom är både fängslande och tänkvärd, men därmed inte sagt att den inte har sina skavanker. Som författarens tendens att klämma i med två eller tre metaforer där det gott och väl hade räckt med en." - Eva Johansson, Svenska Dagbladet

  • "There is much to enjoy along the way. As with Franzen’s last novel, The Corrections, family life is taken to be the essential American mystery: the great white whale, the last frontier. (...) Freedom is somehow both calmer and angrier than The Corrections, but if you liked that, you’ll probably like this." - Keith Miller, The Telegraph

  • "True, Freedom is an unhappy domestic saga largely set in a time of (distant) conflict, but everything about the story and the style is urgently modern and up to date. The narrative is apparently undemanding but skilfully fragmented, requiring the reader’s involvement to reassemble it in coherent shape. (...) Franzen is at his best when zooming in on details of the material world, depicting youthfully exclusive advances in telephoning, texting and emailing etiquette, for example" - James Campbell, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The reason that freedom is both tempting and terrible, Mr. Franzen hammeringly explains, is that it can only be gained at the expense of others. An endless cycle plays out: People choose spouses in order to spurn parents and then choose lovers in order to spurn spouses. (...) (T)he last 300 pages of Freedom become bogged down with tendentious speechmaking and baleful overanalysis of every mean thought that enters his characters' heads. Yet despite those frequent lapses, Freedom remains a weirdly addictive reading experience." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "(M)ore staid, more mature, but all around less exciting (.....) This finely fanged tale of neighborly spite and camouflaged jealousy lets you relish your own superiority -- if you don't recoil at the narrator's smugness, which is perhaps what always separates Franzen's fans from his detractors." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

  • "Was Jonathan Franzen hier bietet, ist ein erstaunliches Genesungsprojekt der amerikanischen Gesellschaft, das mit einem Bein im Kitschverdacht steht. Ein Roman, an dessen Ende man sich fühlt wie bei der Entlassung aus der Reha und weiß: Er ist, nachdrücklicher als die Korrekturen, ganz allgemein auch als Genesungsprojekt für die von Popularitätsschwäche heimgesuchte Literatur gedacht." - Ursula März, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Freedom wants to be both epochal and utterly domestic; this is a novel of the jr. Bush-era, as well as of what Franzen imagines a modern American family to be like. It is very much of its time, yet admirably Franzen does not force many of the major issues and events of the day too obviously to the fore, understanding that they are often little more than background color and noise in everyday life. (Admittedly, too, he favors escapist characters who don't want to deal with larger or smaller issues: the number of characters who run away from life, events, and each other here is simply staggering, evasion, withdrawal, and denial the preferred life-tactics.) The terrorist attacks of 2001, and the subsequent Anglo-American invasion of Iraq might be considered the defining events of the American decade, but for Franzen and his characters they remain incidental, their shadows perhaps long but barely noticed (though the Bush-Cheney culture -- its ethics and outlook, and the degradation it has wrought on America (as Franzen clearly sees it) -- do suffuse the entire book). The financial crisis of the past few years comes in handy, but also barely causes any ripples here; instead, the political issues Franzen treats prominently are environmental preservation and population control -- and both of those at their fringes (the environmental focus is on saving a single bird-species, the population control an attempt to get Americans to stop having kids (rather than lowering population growth in countries less well situated to handle it)).
       Freedom is the story of the Berglund family: Walter and Patty, and their son Joey. (Yes, there's a daughter, Jessica, too, but her appearances barely amount to cameos; Franzen doesn't seem to know what to do with her, and it's only when it looks like Dad is going to hook up with a girl not much older than her that she gets a few choice moments on stage.) There's also Richard Katz, Walter's college roommate and best friend -- whom, it turns out, Patty had (and has) quite a thing for.
       The novel begins with a short section that covers most of Walter and Patty's married life, describing their life in St.Paul. Typically, this section describes something past (and escaped from), the very first sentence noting the family: "had moved away to Washington two years earlier". But it gives some sense of the family: Walter the environmentally concerned lawyer, Patty the stay-at-home mom -- who doted too much on the one child (Joey). There's also the neighbor, Carol Monaghan, whose daughter Connie becomes devoted to Joey at a very young age, and whose devotion will turn out to be one of the few reliable constants in the lives of any of the characters; Joey goes along with it, and at age sixteen even moves in next door (greatly displeasing his parents).
       This first section reveals some of the family dynamics and characteristics, but it's a compact little account, coming in at less than thirty pages. It is followed by the next building block in this story, a 150-page chunk presented as an 'Autobiography of Patty Berglund by Patty Berglund' -- promisingly titled 'Mistakes were made' (though readers will have guessed as much from the first whirlwind section). Written in the third person, Patty's therapy-session outpouring (the 'autobiography' is described as having been 'Composed At Her Therapist's Suggestion') is an odd piece of work -- a strong piece of writing that nevertheless proves as much stumbling as building block in the novel.
       It is an autobiography, with the third-person perspective giving it an effectively odd feel; less effective is the fact that it is hard to reconcile Patty's fluent self-analysis with how the character is presented elsewhere. Patty is largely estranged from her own family; one of several children she could only stand out by excelling at sports -- basketball in particular -- and that didn't much impress her family. While appearing supportive, they provided little of the necessary support; Patty would of course try to do differently by her children (well, Joey) only to wind up with similarly disastrous results. At college an obsessive girl, Eliza, latches on to her -- a pathological version of Connie -- and she also gets to know Richard Katz and Walter. She's not really bowled over by Walter but what the hell:

He may not have been exactly what she wanted in a man, but he was unsurpassable in providing the rabid fandom which, at the time, she needed even more than romance.
       Walter, despite already being: "an annually renewing Student-level member of Zero Population Growth", has his sights so firmly on her that he's willing to forsake a few ideals and go ahead and found a family and all -- which is what they wind up doing. Of course, womanizer Richard -- who has a band (the Traumatics), and lives the typical garage-band lifestyle -- sorely tempts her before she settles on Walter. And that temptation remains itchily sore for much longer.
       Richard attains some measure of success eventually -- not that he ever gets comfortable with it -- , and that also complicates his relationship with the steady Walter some. And then there is that bit of passion he and Patty feel for one another.
       Freedoms course through this novel, as almost all the characters have a stab at some form of it. Dutiful Walter seems to be the most deferential to others' expectations and demands, the type of cog that keeps society functioning. Of course, he also gets to go off the rails briefly, but for the most part he stays the steady course. Richard, meanwhile, is the most anarchic character, doing as he pleases -- and certainly with no intention of settling down (or practicing anything resembling monogamy). Patty ostensibly has some freedoms but also likes to tie herself down (and in knots) with family obligations and the like; indeed, she finds she's not really getting much out of all that ostensible freedom:
     Where did the self-pity come from ? The inordinate volume of it ? By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.
       Patty's exercise in autobiography reveals quite a bit about her -- and her feelings towards Richard, and her actions. Needless to say, it serves several narrative-device purposes: it's a creative way of allowing Franzen to present much of his material -- and the manuscript can, at a later point, be read by other characters. As it is. With the predictable consequences.
       After Patty is done (for the time being: a brief section offers a postscript, 'Mistakes were made (conclusion): A Sort of Letter to Her Reader' near the end of the novel) the novel turns to 2004 and continues the stories of these various characters and their difficulties in finding and dealing with various sorts of freedoms. The previous two sections seem to have consisted of foundation-building, but Franzen never really gets things properly going: he continues much as before. The 2004-section actually begins with a burnt-out Richard returning to his old way of making money, carpentry -- building decks in lower Manhattan, another sort of foundation-building that doesn't really go (or get him) anywhere.
       There are a few more arcs here, lives started, seeming to build up to something -- but Franzen can only keep momentum going for a while. A few characters are entirely bogged down in inertia, but even those who seem to be barreling ahead -- Walter and Joey, for a while -- seem to wind up on courses that completely peter out into nothingness.
       Joey goes off to college and plans to cut what ties bind him to Connie -- but instead keeps returning to her fold: her insane devotion -- a willingness to become whatever Joey needs her to become, and to support him in any way -- is a freakish, twisted romantic ideal:
I'll do things that nobody else will do. If you need somebody to break the law, I'll do that for you. If you want children, I'll raise them for you.
       Her complete committedness suggests the opposite of freedom: like the best-trained lap-dog she does only as she's told, whether Joey says they shouldn't talk on the phone for a while or she should go to college. There's a bit of manipulation on her part, too, but her blind allegiance -- even he doesn't think it's a great idea for her to fork over her trust-fund money -- ultimately proves a winning strategy (though is also very, very, very far from the most realistic part of the novel -- with even Franzen not going too much into the details towards at the end as the sheer implausibility of it all surely scared even him off). Apparently not so ironically, she seems by far the happiest and most well-adjusted (in her screwed up way) character in the book (having only to pass through only a few really dark periods when Joey seemed to be slipping from her grasp), having figured out at pre-pubescent age who she wanted to hitch her wagon and every last part of her life to, and having had not a single other goal or ambition since then.
       Joey makes a friend at college, and finds himself drawn to things his parents disapprove of (finding he's more Republican than Democrat, the lure of money) or hushed up (his Jewish roots). Money, in particular, is a big attraction -- and a necessity if he wants to get anywhere with his roommate's stunningly beautiful sister -- and leads him to a small-scale deal with the devil, as he becomes a part of the military supply chain (at the lowest level), involved in one larger deal that allows him to make a mint off of selling what is essentially scrap metal. His conscience does get the better of him, but only when it's too late for him to extricate himself; as to consequences, there are of course none.
       As executive director of the Cerulean Mountain Trust Walter makes his own deal with a devil, becoming involved in: "a whole new approach to conservation", an attempt to save a single bird -- the cerulean warbler. The idea is to set aside a good deal of land for the bird -- but the cost is permitting mountaintop removal coal mining on large parts of it, a trade-off Walter convinces himself is worth it. There are also the local residents that have to be bought out -- Appalachian hicks that Walter is .... poorly equipped to deal with. Fortunately, he has a hot assistant, Lalitha, who can handle these and other situations; unfortunately Lalitha is an in-house assistant -- literally in-house, as the Cerulean Mountain Trust, Walter and Patty, and her all share the same DC quarters. Moon-eyed young assistant and wise, more mature idealist -- it's obvious where this is going. Disappointingly, Franzen again proves lazy in resolving the situation, rather than dealing with it.
       While he is a committed environmentalist, worried about the birds, what Walter really wants to do is work on that other cause he's long been passionate about, the much bigger environmental issue: overpopulation. So he plans his own initiative to tackle the problem in the US, and convince the kids not to procreate; Lalitha is, of course, on board -- and Walter asks music-man Richard to help out in order to help attract the hip college crowd (yes: bad idea). Even forgotten daughter Jessica is brought in to help brainstorm.
       The political activism -- both the Cerulean Mountain Trust and the efforts to set up the anti-procreation initiative -- do provide considerable comic relief, but ultimately there's too much cynicism dripping here, with Franzen unable to avoid slipping into the cartoonish. The mega-rich trust-founder is, of course, a friend of the Bushs and Cheneys, the combination of coal-mining and bird-saving a tough sell, and ultimately, of course, Walter can't hack it -- but the scene where he finally has his say is a ridiculous one. (Tellingly, it is one of several significant scenes in the book where a character is, for one reason or another over-tired: here Walter has been popping pills, elsewhere there are claims of sleepwalking as excuses for unacceptable conduct; for all the talk of freedom, Franzen's characters often seem to require a little push for free will really to break through.) Meanwhile, his explanation of the dangers of overpopulation is patronizing (says the man with two kids ...) -- and, of course, only successful when it's misunderstood. Yes, Franzen seems deeply disillusioned about the possibility of effective political and social engagement -- though it doesn't help that he makes his characters so poorly equipped for it.
       Walter and Patty's marriage, and the difficulties they go through, is the unifying story-arc. For a while they're apart: typically, Walter refuses to exchange so much as a word with his wife during that time. Escapism and isolation are the preferred paths his characters take (though Walter has nothing on Joey, who is a master of evasion, flight, and avoidance, or Richard -- who at least is upfront about his congenital inability to remain close, much less intimate); the concluding pages again describe the Berglunds having departed from somewhere (rather than arriving).
       Parts, especially early on, of Freedom are very strong. Franzen captures characters' discomfort -- in their own skins, in their own families -- particularly well, but he's surprisingly poor at character development here. Many of the situations he devises for his characters seem forced, there to allow him to (try to) make a point; one character is simply thrown off the road when she becomes an inconvenience, others' critical changes -- or at least what one imagines are their changes -- are not shown, the characters sidelined (Connie, Jessica).
       What amounts to commentary on the jr. Bush-era seems rather half-hearted -- the cartoonish villains, the lack of moral compasses -- and that would be fine, but Franzen's strangely selfish characters (Patty, Richard, Joey, Connie, a secondary character like Jenna, and even Walter) ultimately seem just too strange and selfish. With its shifting focus -- for the longest time it's unclear which characters will emerge as important, and for the longest time one expects, for example, Jessica to get some attention (she doesn't) -- there's also a loose feel to the book, keeping the reader off balance (for no obviously good reason).
       The writing is rather uneven -- all the more noticeable because when Franzen is on, as he is for stretches here, he's very good indeed. Playing to his strengths also undermines the work as a whole, because they don't lead him anywhere: he doesn't do enough with too many of the characters he's juggling, and too often he bails out rather than seeing things through.
       There's a lot to Freedom, but only so much satisfaction; it's not a step forward from The Corrections.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 October 2010

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Links:

Freedom: Reviews: Jonathan Franzen: Other books by Jonathan Franzen under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       American author Jonathan Franzen was born in 1959.

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