‘Freedom’, Jonathan Franzen

  • by Matt Wood

Franzen’s poignant narrative forces readers to question their moral stance, in its uncovering of the not-so perfect reality of America’s suburban family life.

In Freedom, Franzen unearths the painstakingly troublesome reality of the archetypal American middle class family existence. He seeks to uncover and critique the incorrect representation of such idyllic domestic tranquility, in contemporary literature and popular art. The appropriately selected settings take readers on a journey from the seemingly settled monotony of the Midwest to a West Virginian mountain top. The author’s foreshadowing of the inevitable implosion of the socially conscious, judgmental and self-congratulatory Bergland family shocks, engages and enthralls his readers. Blatant parallels can be drawn between the family saga and the equally tense political, social and actual wars of the twenty first century.

For example, the Iraq conflict is described as “an intractable geopolitical deadlock” with the intention being to “radically expand the sphere of freedom.” Franzen employs a highly complex, overlapping and progressive narrative of shifting chronology, to document the lives of the novel’s many compromised individuals. In Franzen, we experience an author wholly devoted to an unrepentant speaking of truths.

Crucially, the book’s title lays the foundations for an exploration into freedom as a problematic concept; with liberty comes responsibility, choice and significant difficulty, yet eventually nothing can override or prevent an individual’s imperative to be free. Yet don’t assume that this is an overly melancholic novel; humour, irony and suspense bring light to its tone. Each of Freedom’s characters are guilty of one or more cataclysmic betrayals, be that physical, psychological or both. In reading her self-confessing memoir, readers empathise with the weak, pathetic and adrift Patty, the incapable and competitive Burgland mother. Walter, the “greener than Greenpeace” Burgland father, faces a compromise in his freedom as he is forced to collaborate with a destructive energy company in order to facilitate his passion for conservationism.

Walter also pursues the problem of overpopulation with a messianic, misbegotten fervor, which again relates to the crucial significance of one’s freedom. At the same time, he faces the unenviable challenge of coming to terms with his wife’s destructive love affair with the sarcastic and despicable ex-best friend, rocker, Richard Katz. Readers’ sympathies remain loyal to Walter as he characterises the model of self-sacrifice and self-discipline, yet his extreme selflessness is also his major character flaw. Put simply, Franzen proves that we helplessly collide with others, due to the proximity of our orbiting each other at the closest possible range, in equal pursuit of our sacred freedom. Whilst we may not like to admit it, Freedom proves that we are all misshapen and lopsided, like the Burglands; satisfaction is born out of an acceptance of this stark imperfection.

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