As Kris Kristofferson mournfully sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” That sentiment might stand as the epigraph to Jonathan Franzen’s fourth and finest novel in which each of his characters tests the boundaries of freedom and finds it distinctly less attractive close up than in prospect. It is, however, with a much more haunting and subtle verse that Franzen prefaces his doorstopper. A fragment from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale sets the mood for the bitter, rarely sweet story that is to follow:
You precious winners all; your exultation
Partake to everyone. I, an old turtle,
Will wing me to some withered bough, and there
My mate, that’s never to be found again,
Lament till I am lost.”
But lest you imagine Freedom is a dirge or a drag, let me assure you it is an unqualified, if wrenching, delight. It is that rare thing: an entirely traditional novel whose daring lies in delving with Tolstoyan intensity, and Proustian sensuality, to the very bottom of the troubled human heart. Franzen, as he showed in The Corrections, can work miracles with misery. It’s not that he relishes unhappiness, precisely, but that the slow, awkward, often painful business of making friends and families – and keeping them – is the mill in which his ideas are ground to gold dust.
The Corrections was one of the outstanding novels of the early millennium, a rumination on family, and on father-son bonds and sibling ties, that made the domestic canvas as vital, political and life-threatening as an appointment on Capitol Hill or on a battlefield. With Freedom, Franzen again immerses himself in the small, messily personal details of family life. In so doing, he offers a fascinating, uncomfortable insight into a badly bruised marriage, and at the same time illuminates his country with equally merciless, and even more devastating acuity. All, it must be said, with a vein of dry humour running beneath his coruscating honesty, a wit that on occasion turns into open comedy.
The outline of this novel sounds, in precis, both simple and a little sickly. Patty and Walter Berglund seem like the perfect married couple: attractive, friendly, good parents and responsible citizens of St Paul in Minnesota, heartland of Garrison Keillor’s whimsical universe. On the opening page, however, Franzen kills the idea of perfection before it can take root: “there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds”, their neighbours reflect.
The first clue that all was not as it should be within the Berglund household is when their 15-year-old son Joey moves in with his girlfriend and her trashy family next door. This triggers the spectacular collapse of the public face of what one party to the marriage had thought of as near-perfect. Walter, it transpires, adores Patty unreservedly, and has done from the day they met at college, when she was a well-known basketball star from a wealthy family and he a penurious but idealistic environmentalist. Which passion, crucially, he pursues throughout this labyrinthine novel, though growing increasingly cynical with it.
That Patty always hankered after Walter’s best friend, the alluring, irrepressibly promiscuous singer-songwriter Richard, slowly and devastatingly becomes clear 20 years on. The agonising tangle of love and commitment between these spirited, tormented three that ensues is the linchpin of this deeply complex, emotionally harrowing account of love and desire, and the dangerous cracks between these states that one can fall into.
Moving from the Berglund marriage’s heyday, before Joey’s rebellion, to its nadir, some years in the wake of 9/11, Freedom shows each of the family – Joey first, then Patty and eventually Walter – slipping the leash. Only their younger child, Jessica, remains as grounded by responsibilities at the end as she was at the beginning. She and, in his own way, the ageing rock star Richard, as his die-hard selfishness continues to dictate the shape of his life and those around him.
Alarmingly, once Walter has ditched the straitjacket of a safe career and his role as good husband and father, he has “a feeling of not being made for a life of freedom and outlaw heroics; of needing a more dully and enduringly discontented situation to struggle against and fashion an existence within”. When, in a telling encounter with his feckless brother Mitch, father of various children, who has never held down a job or a relationship, Walter recognises this unappetising creature as “a free man”, it is no compliment to the idea of liberty.
With the propulsion of this novel returning always to the present-day, Franzen superbly spins off into the past to show who each of his characters is and what has made them this way. There’s a tone almost of reportage to some of these sections, a matter of fact mood that makes the poignancy of his material bearable. Childhood neglect of a most sophisticated kind in Patty’s case, and of uncouth father-son-and-brother jealousy in Walter’s, are pitiful to watch. Her parents’ lack of interest in her almost explains Patty’s claustrophobic mothering of Joey, which is to have such devastating consequences. Walter’s family’s open disdain for him makes sense of his need to be more decent than is humanly possible.
Franzen can’t stay prosaic for long, however. His romantic, lush over sensitivity to surroundings and objects as well as people is one of the joys of this novel, adding richness of observation to profundity of insight. So, when Mitch goads young Walter, with fag in hand, he “peered down into his ashtray as into a prison yard crowded with dusty inmates, considering how to squeeze another in”. In a few short years, he will be in a prison yard for real.
As all generations of the Berglund family spiral into chaos, America itself lurches from one disaster to the next, the war in Iraq and the ruination of the environment shadowing every step Franzen’s characters take. Not the least of this novel’s many satisfactions is the savage eye he casts on the ethical wasteland he believes his homeland’s leaders have created. Where Patty and Walter have gone wrong through loving unwisely, or not being loved enough by those who owed them more, America’s woes come from its politicians’ and exploiters’ greed and hubris. Such abuse of freedom is, thus, indefensible. Thankfully for readers, though, who by its end will feel something close to love for his indelibly etched individuals, Franzen’s characters are never cast into outer darkness.