Barack Obama went to Martha’s Vineyard and there obtained, a week before its release, a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s novel. That same week, my family was heading to the Bahamas, and because we’d be isolated on a island three miles long and half a mile wide, with spotty internet access and even more problematic electricity, I was able to convince the publisher to give me an embargoed copy of the book.
I doubt that the President has made his way through all 562 pages of “Freedom. “ [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.] My wife and I have made it to the end. It required no effort of will, just a little negotiation (“I’ll take the kid to the beach if you’ll use the time to read”). That is how, on our final morning overlooking the pink sands where Corona makes its wish-you-were-there beer commercials, I staggered to the end, sobbing as I read the last ten pages. My wife finished the book while we waited for our baggage in New York, and then couldn’t speak for most of the cab ride home.
What’s the big deal?
Not the characters. The people. Men and women we come to know and care about, not because they’re so admirable but because they’re so real.
Like Patty Berglund, a former college basketball star, now a stay-at-home mom. In her gentrifying neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, she was, Franzen writes, “already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.” That is: “a morning of baby-encumbered errands, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound and latex paint, and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel.” The questions that plagued her: “Where to recycle batteries? … How elaborate did a kitchen water filter need to be? …Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning?”
Like Walter Berglund, her husband. Son of a man who owned a small motel in Hibbing, he was the very nice guy you never really knew in college because he was studying so hard and working his way through school. He’d met Patty there and knew she was The One, and waited for her to know it. And when she said yes, and shared that her dream was motherhood, he shelved every exalted ambition to get a job in Corporate Communications at 3M. When we meet him, he’s the executive director of Minnesota’s Nature Conservancy, having trouble with his teen-aged son, about to move to Washington for a new job — he’ll sell his St. Paul house “near the bottom of the post-9/11 slump.”
One more character drives this novel, Walter’s college roommate and unlikely best friend. Richard Katz is the leader of nihilistic rock bands, and he’s made for the part: talk, dark and arrogant, deadly attractive to women and eager to exploit that attraction. You don’t want the truth served up with nasty spin? Keep away from Richard.
Patty keeps away. Not because she dislikes Richard — she craves him. But she’s made her choice: a man who will do anything to create a home with her. Hot sex? It passes. It has to. Except that….
This is Fiction 101: Building Characters, and if you’re surprised how hard it grabs you, it’s because today’s most acclaimed fiction is too “literary” to care more about people than language or structure or the next definition of fiction. Franzen, like Balzac and Dickens, is a journalist at heart — what he’s created in “Freedom” is this generation’s “Bonfire of the Vanities.”
The mark of this kind of novel is not only that it feels true but that it becomes true. There’s a sequence here of American profiteering during the early days of the Iraq War that’s excruciating in its account of American officials who didn’t give a damn. But there’s no lack of accountability here. Not on Franzen’s watch.
Look anywhere in this novel, and you’ll see how it defines our time. Like that bird on the cover. It’s not decorative. It’s going to have its own preserve in West Virginia, courtesy of a billionaire who will, in exchange for a few protected acres, get to blow up mountains and harvest coal. And just as we’re reading this, here is Jane Mayer’s revelatory New Yorker profile of David and Charles Koch, the billionaires whose companies pollute and despoil while David gives hundreds of millions to Lincoln Center, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Let’s consider the title. Franzen’s characters are not like the Koch brothers or the coal magnate or the Iraq fraudsters. They are their victims, living in an America where we make our biggest choices as shoppers. It’s a dreary, ugly culture. Even Walter — staid Walter — comes to make a surprising indictment: “As long as you’ve got your six-foot-wide-plasma TV and the electricity to run it, you don’t have to think about any of the ugly consequences. You can watch Survivor: Indonesia till there’s no more Indonesia!”
The personal quarrels? Just as lacerating. I can’t imagine having a fight with my wife as ugly as the ones in these pages. But they’re not set-pieces. They’re the intimate moments of people whose conflicts, though maybe not ours, are recognizable to us. And when those fights end, sometimes there is clarity, even beauty:
She cried then, torrentially, and he lay down with her. Fighting had become their portal to sex, almost the only way it ever happened anymore. While the rain lashed and the sky flashed, he tried to fill her with self-worth and desire, tried to convey how much he needed her to be the person he could bury his cares in. It never quite worked, and yet, when they were done, there came a stretch of minutes in which they lay in the quiet majesty of long marriage, forgot themselves in shared sadness and forgiveness for everything they’d inflicted on each other, and rested.
“The quiet majesty of long marriage” — that phrase stopped me cold and made me consider the ultimate subject of this book, which is, I think, the challenge of building a functional romantic partnership when you’re carrying the legacy of your flawed family and your country’s dishonest and exploitative culture. Again, I suspect this challenge isn’t unique to Patty and Walter Berglund. It’s mine, for sure. And, just maybe, yours.
And that is why the end is so devastating. It’s richly symbolic — and, for once, the symbol works. It sets our fond hopes against our hard realities. It reminds us of the limits of our personal power. It redefines what “freedom” is for people like us, in a time like this. And it suggests, after our big dreams have been crushed, we may still make smaller dreams come true.
I wish I could be more specific, but that would spoil your experience of completing “Freedom.” Let me just say that the end is everything you want from a great book — it’s not rushed or tacked on or phony or commercial or cynical. It’s at once heartbreaking and inspiring, and it makes you both elated and very, very sad. But, most of all, it immortalizes Patty and Walter and confirms what you are, by then, already feeling — these imaginary people are in your heart, the way your closest friends are.