About as good as fiction gets
FICTION: KEVIN POWERreviews FreedomBy Jonathan Franzen Fourth Estate, 562pp. £20
JONATHAN FRANZEN’S Freedom, nine years in the making, seems to me about as good as fiction can get. Like its predecessor, The Corrections(2001), the new novel is a fully achieved work of art: gloriously expansive, thrillingly intimate and almost preposterously readable.
And a good thing, too: the hype has been terrific. Perhaps because of the huge critical and commercial success of The Corrections, which is by now pretty securely enshrined as a contemporary classic, expectations for Freedomwere running absurdly high. Reviews began to appear before the book was even on sale. Sam Tanenhaus, writing in the New York Times, called it a masterpiece of American fiction. Even the normally fearsome Michiko Kakutani praised the book as “visceral and lapidary”. Barack Obama got hold of an advance copy. And it was Amazon’s top seller two weeks before publication.
Books thusly hyped are seldom everything they’re cracked up to be. And those of us who loved The Correctionscould be forgiven for fearing that Franzen couldn’t possibly do it again, that he couldn’t possibly recapture the comic energy, humane sophistication and cultural reach of his breakthrough novel. Well, Franzen-watchers can relax: Freedomis at least as good as The Corrections. It might even be better.
From the beginning Franzen’s novels have been distinguished by a jones for the big picture. He wants to write big books, books that cram in every telling detail of a given moment in American history. His novels are always about cities and families. His first book, The Twenty-Seventh City(1988), somewhat eccentrically depicted a conspiracy by Indian immigrants to take over St Louis (the city where Franzen grew up). Strong Motion(1992), set in Boston, dealt with corporate malfeasance, contested inheritances, earthquake science and first love. In these early novels Franzen never seemed fully in control of his compulsion to include as much of the world as possible. It wasn’t until The Correctionsthat he brought off his big “social novel”, the possibilities of which he famously agonised about in an essay called “Why Bother?” (1996).
Almost 10 years after publication The Correctionsstill looks like a masterpiece. Miraculously blending the intricate claustrophobia of the Lamberts’ family drama with a borderline-omniscient portrait of the late-1990s US, The Correctionsstill dazzles with its intellectual range and emotional authority. It is a Great American Novel. And now, against all the odds, Franzen has done it again.
Freedomis a meditation on the oldest of American questions: what happens when one’s pursuit of life, liberty and happiness conflicts with the other guy’s pursuit of the same things? It tells the story of Walter and Patty Berglund, a middle-class married couple living, when the book begins, in St Paul, Minnesota. The opening chapter is narrated from the point of view of Patty and Walter’s neighbours, and describes a family in decline. Once the earliest and most enthusiastic gentrifiers on their street, the Berglunds end up alienated from their children – their son, Joey, moves in with the family next door – and spitefully clashing with the people who live nearby.
Beginning the novel this way, with a snarky, judgmental summary of the Berglunds’ decline, is a stroke of genius. Franzen has rigged his novel so that our curiosities about this family are expertly whetted. One of the many remarkable things about Freedomis that the suspense it engenders isn’t narrative suspense: you don’t read on, as you do with most novels, merely to find out what happens; you read on to find out how these characters feel and why they do what they do.
The prologue is followed, in another stroke of genius, by Patty Berglund’s autobiography, “composed at her therapist’s suggestion” and written in the third person. Patty’s narrative introduces us to Walter and Walter’s friend Richard Katz, a depressive, sexually predatory punk guitarist and the third corner of Freedom’s central emotional and sexual triangle. It also introduces us to Patty and Walter’s kids, the self-righteous hipster Jessica and the wannabe Republican psychopath Joey. We see all these characters first from the neighbours’ point of view and then from Patty’s, and by the time the novel’s long central section, “2004”, begins we simply can’t wait to find out what’s going on in these people’s heads. And we are not disappointed.
Unlike almost every other American novelist now writing, Franzen can create three-dimensional characters on the page. The Berglunds and Richard Katz are fabulously rich and complex creations. Walter Berglund, for example, is a fascinating compound of decency, kindness and hectoring fanaticism. Franzen’s ability to inhabit the emotional ecospheres of his characters is astounding.
Freedomtones down the linguistic pyrotechnics of The Corrections– remember the page-long riff on the word “crepuscular” in the earlier novel? – but, even so, the new book offers, page by page, a gorgeously frictionless reading experience. Franzen can give you a character in a single line: “She was one of those overwhelmed mothers engulfed in baby.”
Freedomis many things: a family saga, a satirical essay on the paradoxes of environmentalism, a report on the state of Bush-era America and a love story. “The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom,” Franzen writes, “is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.” And the misanthropy and rage awakened by a soured dream of freedom is the territory of this extraordinary novel.
Kevin Power’s novel Bad Day in Blackrockis published in paperback by Pocket Books
Jonathan Franzen will read from Freedomand take part in a conversation with Hugo Hamilton at the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, on Saturday, October 2nd, at 2.30pm; tickets €10; call 01-2312929; paviliontheatre.ie