Book review – Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus, Giroux
I can’t even imagine being Jonathan Franzen. The man has become the pre-eminent literary icon of this generation based solely on the merits of one incredible book – 2001’s The Corrections. It’s not surprising that it took him nine years to craft his next novel, especially once I had a chance to finally read Freedom. Simply put, this is the greatest work of American fiction in the last ten years.
Freedom follows the Berglund family – Walter, a father and pacifist environmentalist who enters into shady business deals to achieve his goal of protecting a near-extinct bird species; Patty, a former college basketball star who has fallen into a deep depression after raising her kids as a stay-at-home mom; Jessica, a studious pragmatist who basically wants nothing to do with her family; and Joey, a smooth talking girl magnet who moves in with the Republicans next door – through about thirty years of the family’s history. The structure of the book is similar to The Corrections, dedicating individual chapters to the perspective of different members of the family, though Freedom is much broader in scope. Whereas The Corrections plotted individual breakdowns within a family, Freedom frames the characters’ personal follies as allegories for modern America.
This could have easily fallen into the trap of being ham-fisted or preachy, but Franzen is far too talented a writer for that. Joey Berglund, the youngest son in the Berglund family, essentially represents America’s move from FDR-style liberalism to hard-line neo-conservatism and libertarianism, but Franzen is skilled enough to tell his story as a deeply-felt character study rather than as a polemic, even if some of the commentary on the Iraq war occasionally feels a little too on-the-nose.
What I found especially amazing about the book as I read it was that despite the heady concepts that it plays with, Franzen keeps the political undertones entirely organic. Outside of the first chapter, which is in Patty’s voice – a third-person perspective that is supposed to serve as a first-person perspective, which is just as offputting as it sounds – the focus is squarely on the characters, examined in breathtaking and uncomfortable detail.
Almost no sentence is out of place. To have 600-plus pages of magisterial, near-perfect prose that frames the latter half of 20th century American politics and culture within a deep character study is unbelievable. It’s awe-inspiring how perfectly Franzen has crafted his characters, and how I can see elements of nearly every detail in this book in the real world. Freedom is easily one of the most affecting and effective works of art that I can think of.