It has been surreal to read Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom while following on television the fights of Arab youth to obtain their freedom. I was reminded of a visit to Jerusalem several years ago to attend a conference organized by the International Press Institute. It was after the Oslo Accords on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but also after Rabin’s murder. We were served well-meaning speeches from all sides on both sides and all spoke about peace. By the end of the day I was feeling uneasy. If everyone wanted peace, then what was stopping them? Did they not all have the same thing in mind perhaps? Or was the mantra-like repetition of the word only indicative of its near-impossibility in real life?
Franzen’s smartest decision about his novel was its title. Without it, I am not sure the book would have been such a great success, described as a “masterpiece” by Sam Tanenhaus in the New York Times, recommended by Oprah’s Book Club, its author declared a ‘Great American Novelist.’ Reading the novel I kept thinking, what on earth does this story have to do with freedom? Exactly! Mission accomplished!
The realism of this novel—both in style and contents—is oppressive. A fair amount of masochism coupled with resilience is needed to read through the long pages of toxic dialogue of the type that one encounters in unhappy families, between estranged spouses or in professional settings fixated on money or ideology. Its characters are not exceptional, on the contrary. Yet some of them get to do some pretty outrageous things like trying to establish a nature reserve for songbirds using the money of an oil-tycoon while also supporting mountaintop removal for coal extraction—and all this also in the name of addressing THE biggest problem of all, namely, overpopulation. (I should add: this is undertaken by an American liberal also as an act of subversion vis-à-vis the Bush big-corporation regime; yet without once questioning the compatibility of liberalism with either extreme forms of ecological protection or the faith-like belief in overpopulation as the root of all human misery).
At one level such incredible narrative turns are necessary to make up for the emotional numbness of the characters, all of whom seem stuck in the phase of adolescence, still largely obsessed, in word or deed, with how their families screwed them up: Patti, the main female character, grew up hating her family and, especially, her mother, for advising her not to press charges against her rapist at school who also happened to be the boy next door. As an adult she is torn between her husband and her husband’s best friend, clings to her son to the extent of suffocation and spends most of her time drowning in self-pity and competitiveness. Walter, Patti’s husband, is incredibly nice and helpful—like his mother, and the opposite of his rude father. He is a moralist, an idealist and extremely naïve. (He is the one intent on saving songbirds by promoting coal extraction.) He falls for Patti because she needs him and because that fits into his rivalry with Richard. Later he will fall in love with his young assistant but will only sleep with her after he finds out Patti has already been unfaithful. Richard is the artist of the lot who spends years running after ‘chicks’ and writing bad music before he finds inspiration after sleeping with Patti. In fact, he is in love with Patti but does not admit it because Walter is his best friend, the type of brother he never had … and so on and so forth … you get the picture.
The turns in the story have a message: in a ‘free’ world, over-populated by people who seem incapable of growing up or out of their neuroses, keen to assert their freedom but unable to take decisions, mistakes will be made (as Patti asserts in her diary)—at the personal but also the social and political level. Sounds moralistic? It is. That is also what makes the book bittersweet rather than ironic. In a recent interview given to the Paris Review, Franzen stated in conclusion that what many readers are overlooking in his work is his comic side. Well, yes, only that is precisely what is missing. The novel which sometimes reads like a very long script for a movie (or a soap opera, according to Ruth Franklin of TNR) might have provided Woody Allen with some ideas—except that it takes itself too seriously. Or its sense of humour is too sophisticated for most readers. But if you like agonizing over titles or your own indecisions, you might enjoy reading how the grass is not greener on the other side.