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Freedom
Title: Freedom 
Author: Franzen, Jonathan 
Released: 2010-09-01 
Publisher: MPS - US 
ISBN: 9780312600846 
Format: Hardcover 
Category:  
Last Updated: 2017-05-31 
Rating: 1 
Pages: 562 
Description:
Synopsis
From the National Book Award-winning author of The Corrections, a darkly comedic novel about family.

Biography
Best known for his National Book Award-winning novel The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen is equally adept at turning out elegant essays, social commentary, and cultural criticism.

Editorial Reviews -

Freedom

The Barnes & Noble Review
Moby-Dick, the Great White Whale, is supposed to be the curse of American fiction: writers whose ambitions rival Ahab's set off in quest of the Great American Novel only to produce bloviated pseudo-profundities (e.g. Norman Mailer) or die in the attempt (Ralph Ellison and his very posthumously published Juneteenth). Jonathan Franzen leaves the wake of the vengeful cetacean behind and asks us instead to consider the Cerulean Warbler, a small blue songbird that migrates between North and South America:

It breeds in treetops in mature deciduous forest . . . . And then, as soon as the babies can fly, the family moves down into the understory for safety. But the original forests were all cut down for timber and charcoal, and the second-growth forests don't have the right kind of understory, and they're all fragmented with roads and farms and subdivisions and coal-mining sites, which makes the warbler vulnerable to cats and raccoons and crows.

It is, as one character says, a very choosy little bird. Choosiness, in a novel called Freedom, would seem to be significant. But are the ways in which a bird can be said to be choosy relevant for the mammals reading this book? After all, birds can't choose to alter their migration patterns or to develop an anti-raccoon defense system. People, though, are very good at moving into new territories and getting rid of things that get in their way. Maybe this is just our nature, genetically coded adaptive skills that make us what we are. Or are we free to choose how to be?

Franzen gives us a number of characters through whom we can think about freedom -- liberty, license, and individual choice butting up against family circumstances, environment, genetics, and historical and cultural forces. Most of the characters form a tidy nuclear family, the Berglunds. There are Walter and Patty, the parents of the vibrant Joey and the curiously faint Jessica, and themselves the children of Berglunds from Minnesota and Emersons from Westchester. Rippling outwards, there are neighbors, old college friends, Joey's girlfriend, business associates, and so forth, but the family is the main unit of study. And as we've learned since Tolstoy, even happy families are unhappy underneath: the bitter immigrant breeds the slacker breeds the save-the-world-er breeds the in-it-for-me guy breeds the . . .

It would be easy to conclude that Franzen has swathed this family in gloom and doom and the tentacular ties that bind. And indeed at certain stages of narrative, the novel seems to join the everyone's-a-victim in-crowd: Swift's infinite regress where every exploiter is also an exploitee.

So nat'ralists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey
And these have smaller fleas that bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.

Victims all the way down. Can this circle become broken?

Of course, freedom is, as one self-serving character points out, a pain in the ass, and no one seems happy with how much they have, whether they think that amount is a lot or a little. Walter, the rare man who can be persuaded by argument and assumes others can too, tends to start with the societal: "People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don't have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can't afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to." Patty starts with the personal, despite the fact that she writes about herself in the third-person in her therapy journal: "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." There's youthful enthusiasm: Walter and Patty's entrepreneurial son Joey is gung-ho: sex, drugs, and free markets. And there's experienced resignation: their college friend Richard Katz, an indie rocker avant la lettre living outside bourgeois limits, uses his depression and self-loathing in his work -- but he doesn't see himself as having much choice in the matter:

For Katz's Jewish paternal forebears, who'd been driven from shtetl to shtetl by implacable anti-Semites, as for the old Angles and Saxons on his mother's side, who'd labored to grow rye and barley in the poor soils and short summers of northern Europe, feeling bad all the time and expecting the worst had been natural ways of equilibriating themselves with the lousiness of their circumstances. Few things gratified depressives, after all, more than really bad news. This obviously wasn't an optimal way to live, but it had its evolutionary advantages. Depressives in grim situations handed down their genes, however despairingly, while the self-improvers converted to Christianity or moved away to sunnier locales. Grim situations were Katz's niche the way murky water was a carp's.

(Katz is one of the most seductive characters in the book; many characters find him irresistible. I myself am unable to resist pointing out that Franzen has put the Katz among the pigeons.)

In early-middle-aged crisis mode, Patty admires the domestic attractions of War and Peace, but goes the more conventional Anna Karenina adultery route. Walter, more interestingly, develops a master plan: he decides to manipulate the system of nature-raping capitalists on behalf of the voiceless oppressed -- which brings us back to that Cerulean Warbler.

Franzen is himself a birdwatcher -- he's spoken about it in an interview he gave to the B&N Review, and the chapter called "My Bird Problem" in his memoir, The Discomfort Zone, seems like a miniature draft of many of the themes of his new book. To be a birdwatcher requires obsession linked to the foreknowledge of disappointment. Distance is inevitable, and perhaps for that reason to be embraced. Love and admiration can be present, but are not necessary. Hundreds of hours looking through binoculars at birds lead Franzen to single out these qualities:

To be hungry all the time, to be made for sex, to not believe in global warming, to be shortsighted, to live without thought of your grandchildren, to spend half your life on personal grooming, to be perpetually on guard, to be compulsive, to be habit-bound, to be avid, to be unimpressed with humanity, to prefer your own kind: these were all ways of being like a bird.

Birders love their lists, and Freedom is filled with lists, which at first seemed to me like shorthand sociology, but now I think resemble a field guide -- something like Roger Tory Peterson's system of a boldly marked image with arrows for the quick identification of species. Franzen gives us the revealingly tacky Christmas presents from non-child-centered grandparents circa 1970: "little pieces of plastic Asian-made crap: tiny travel alarm clocks that didn't work, coin purses stamped with the name of a New Jersey insurance agency, frightening crude Chinese finger puppets, assorted swizzle sticks." There's the early 1980s Good Mother: "an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint, and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel." There's the irritating Perfect Young Man: "Despite working what amounted to a full-time year-round unpaid job, Walter had also managed to star in school plays and musicals, inspire lifelong devotion in numerous childhood friends, learn cooking and basic sewing from his mother, pursue his interest in nature (tropical fish; ant farms; emergency care for orphaned nestlings; flower pressing), and graduate valedictorian."

These lists can be funny, but they can also close us off from the expenditure of more thought. Is it because lists put everything in a place, no matter how artificial or badly fitting? "Merrie, who was ten years older than Patty and looked every year of it, had formerly been active with the SDS in Madison and was now very active in the craze for Beaujolais nouveau." It's flip. Too flip, earning only a cheap laugh? Is it meant to ward off sympathy? Maybe it's just a lazy shortcut to fleshing out a minor character?

Another distancing technique is foreshadowing, sometimes from the narrator, beginning in the very first chapter, sometimes from Patty in her third-person accounts: "And yet the autobiographer now envies and pities the younger Patty standing there in the Fen City Co-op and innocently believing that she's reached the bottom: that, one way or another, the crisis would be resolved in the next five days." At moments like these, Franzen doesn't seem to leave us even the momentary pleasures of the illusion of freedom. And if that's so, humor aside, why should we even care about these often tiresome people?

And yet.

Franzen frames his story through the eyes of neighbors, observers physically close but emotionally at a remove. What's impressive to my mind about Franzen's choice to begin and end at this distance is that the interpretive judgment of neighbors turns out to be pretty good and yet always askew. But for the rest of us at our privileged closer vantage points, Franzen has provided a lot of observational data -- more than 500 pages worth -- so that we can see those little markings that make all the difference. While trying to hold moral binoculars up for so long can make the characters wobble between likeability and ickiness, the development of the muscles of sympathy and judgment it encourages is all to the good -- if we can avoid relaxing into the comforts of smugness which Franzen sometimes also puts on display. It's our choice: readers, after all, have certain freedoms, too.

So although Patty stews in her often self-induced helplessness for quite a while and Walter retreats to lick his wounds, they're not, after all, that much like birds. Children and grandchildren as well as global warming and a sense of shared history still have a call on them. Ultimately, the Berglunds still aspire -- and more importantly choose to act -- to arrest victim-ness, the random cruelty of nature and the arbitrariness of fate where neighbors build ugly houses, cats kill birds, and people sometimes die for no good reason at all. I'm not saying we've got a happy ending here -- Heaven forfend! But Franzen, though not preachy, is big-hearted enough to give us a sense of closure appropriate for his tale.

To erase humans altogether and let nature take its course is not only too pessimistic, but unrealistic. Candide's conclusion, "Il faut cultiver notre jardin," is too positive, apparently, perhaps because gardens have come to seem too shaped by human hands. What's left in this view is a kind of ecological quietism: at least (maybe, alas, at most) we humans can choose to make a fenced-off preserve and then stay out. In Franzen's world, it seems a hopeful conclusion that this is better than nothing.

--Alexandra Mullen

From the Publisher
Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul-the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter's dreams. Together with Walter-environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man-she was doing her small part to build a better world.

But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz-outré rocker and Walter's college best friend and rival-still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become "a very different kind of neighbor," an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street's attentive eyes?

In his first novel since The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen has given us an epic of contemporary love and marriage. Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom's characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time.

From the Publisher
Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul-the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter's dreams. Together with Walter-environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man-she was doing her small part to build a better world.

But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz-outré rocker and Walter's college best friend and rival-still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become "a very different kind of neighbor," an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street's attentive eyes?

In his first novel since The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen has given us an epic of contemporary love and marriage. Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom's characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time.

Esquire - Benjamin Alsup
...a great novel...While his contemporaries content themselves with small books about nothing much or big books about comics, Franzen delivers the massive, old-school jams. It's not that Franzen's prose makes other writers seem untalented; it's that he makes them seem so lazy, so irrelevant, so lacking in the kind of chutzpah we once expected from our best authors. Freedom doesn't name check War and Peace for nothing. It's making a claim for shelf space among the kind of books that the big dogs used to write. The kind they called important. The kind they called greats.

The New York Times Book Review - Sam Tanenhaus
Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom, like his previous one, The Corrections, is a masterpiece of American fiction. The two books have much in common. Once again Franzen has fashioned a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life...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.

The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani
Jonathan Franzen's galvanic new novel, Freedom, showcases his impressive literary toolkit-every essential storytelling skill, plus plenty of bells and whistles-and his ability to throw open a big, Updikean picture window on American middle-class life. 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...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.

Publishers Weekly
When Patty and Walter Berglund's teenage son moves in with their conservative neighbors and their perfect life in St. Paul begins to unravel, out spill family secrets--clandestine loves, lies, compromises, failures. David Ledoux's masterly narration is powerful and well paced, comic and poignant. He expertly captures Walter and Patty--with her anxious whinny of a laugh--and their family life with its satisfactions and histrionics. Ledoux also deftly renders the gossiping of the Berglund's disingenuous neighbors; the frenetic rants of the drug-addled Eliza; and the weary, disaffected drawl of sleazy musician Richard. A Farrar, Straus, and Giroux hardcover (Reviews, July 5). (Sept.)

Library Journal
"Use Well Thy Freedom": this motto, etched in stone on a college campus, hints at the moral of Franzen's sprawling, darkly comic new novel. The nature of personal freedom, the fluidity of good and evil, the moral relativism of nearly everything--Franzen takes on these thorny issues via the lives of Walter and Patty Berglund of St. Paul. With two kids, a Volvo in the garage, and a strong social conscience, the Berglunds allow their good deeds to be tinged with just a hint of smugness (which eventually comes back to haunt them). Weaving in and out of their lives is old college friend Richard Katz, low-level rock star and ultra-hip antihero. Time goes by, the kids grow up, betrayals occur, and the thin line between right and wrong blurs. Fully utilizing their freedom--to make mistakes, confuse love with lust, and mix up goodness and greed--the Berglunds give Franzen the opportunity to limn the absurdities of our modern culture. Granola moms, raging Republicans, war profiteers, crooked environmentalists, privileged offspring, and poverty-bred rednecks each enjoy the uniquely American freedom to make disastrous choices and continually reinvent themselves. VERDICT As in his National Book Award winner, The Corrections, Franzen reveals a penchant for smart, deceptively simple, and culturally astute writing. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/10.]--Susanne Wells, P.L. of Cincinnati & Hamilton Cty.