Wednesday, March 30, 2011


I've just finished Jonathan Franzen's novel, Freedom.  Described by Time Magazine as the new "great American novelist," Franzen lives up to the rep he was given even before Freedom came out. This is indeed the exploration of a quintessentially American idea, and connects Franzen with other writers who have explored one of America's founding principles, writers that include Jefferson, Lincoln, Emerson, Thoreau, Hemingway, Martin Luther King.  But Franzen takes an approach to the idea of freedom that would perhaps surprise his antecedents.  In his novel, it is not freedom that allows people to bloom and thrive; it is responsibility. Freedom allows his characters to drift; it makes some of them depressed while it turns others misanthropic.

In an essay I make my students read for their Historical Methods course, Stephen Greenblatt argues that while culture can be thought of as all the effluvia--ideas, events, arts, politics, cellphones and HD TV, ballet flats and Nike runners--that swirls in the world around us, that concept is uselessly broad for insightful analysis.  He suggests instead that culture gestures both toward the mobility it affords us and toward the constraints it imposes.  The constraints are expressed in a society's rules, its system of punishment, but also in its material culture.  Mobility, without which constraint is meaningless, is often found in subversive art, in the ways we improvise our way around the constraints.  We find a way to get back at our control-freak boss that eludes detection (or we dream about it); we get slightly drunk at family Thanksgiving so we can have an excuse to tell tight-assed Aunt Milly what we really think of her knee-jerk ideology that frees her from the responsibility of independent thought.  Then, of course, we wink; don't take us seriously--we're a bit drunk.

At the current moment, technology seems to offer us mobility:  we can surf the net from anywhere; we can negotiate business deals while choosing the right kind of canned tomatoes at the grocery store; our vehicles--particularly the trucks and four-wheel-drives--can take us anywhere.  But Greenblatt might observe that this technology also represents a constraint.  What does it mean that your boss can reach you anywhere, any time?  What price do you pay for the vehicle that will go anywhere--and figure that both in dollars and in damage to the environment.

Greenblatt also suggests that some cultures attempt to achieve as much constraint as possible, while others quest for perfect mobility. We can see, for example, that China's one child policy imposes constraints.  Consider its effects on a couple's intimate life or on a woman's relationship to her body when she is encouraged to abort a female fetus.  America surges toward as much mobility as possible, as might be articulated in its gun laws or in its promise that "anyone can be president."

It's almost as if Franzen had read Greenblatt's essay, for he has a gift of seeing the constraint in the mobility.  Take Patty, for example, the young gifted basketball player who settles down with Walter Berglund in the 70s, in an old house that the two of them renovate in an effort to create the perfect life that gestures toward tradition as well as toward modern outlooks.  Walter makes enough money that Patty doesn't need to work, so she stays home with the kids well after they've entered school.  After all, she likes the freedom.  But that freedom comes with some fairly possessive parenting that backfires big time, some debilitating depression, some damaging desires.  (Spoiler alert!)  Only once Walter has kicked Patty out and she rediscovers the joy of working with young children and of shaping young athletes is Patty, in that almost quintessentially American expression, happy. This is true of other characters as well:  responsibility and connection to others create fruitful, satisfying lives.  Endless desires that can never be sated do not.

We read, I tell my creative writers, for the experience, not for the message.  That could be said of the way we relate to any work of art.  It's the experience of Rothko's enormous, sombre, nuanced paintings that make the Rothko room at Britain's Tate Modern one of the quietest rooms in an otherwise exuberant gallery.  It's the experience of a piece of music that raises the hair on your arms.  Similarly, it's the experience of Franzen's characters, and the ease with which we identify with them that precedes, even in a novel with a portentous title like Freedom, our analysis of Franzen's ideas.

But I also have a bad habit as a reader--or a good one, perhaps.  I can't help reading like a writer.  Franzen evokes this habit in me when he allows his characters to talk about environmental issues like habitat preservation or population growth without it seeming like the author is preaching at me, and getting between me and my experience of the characters and the narrative.  How'd he do that, I asked myself at the end of a scene where Walter tries to convince his old friend Katz to join him in his plans to motivate young people to think about these issues.  The answer is twofold.  First, Walter has a rather odd, sometimes naive (though always well-informed) take on these issues; we easily recognize the moments when he's on the wrong tangent; we see what's human about Walter's enthusiasms, and how the human gets in the way of idealism.  Second, we hear the conversation from Richard Katz's much more cynical point of view, so there's an added layer of critique and commentary.   

Franzen is a ventriloquist when it comes to dialogue.  That's part of the experience of the novel:  the opportunity to eavesdrop on conversations that sound believable, spontaneous, and human.  My favourite here is a conversation late in the novel that occurs when Walter Berglund, whose family cottage has been overtaken by the suburbs, tries to convince a Christian fundamentalist mother to keep her cat in the house so it won't kill the birds.  Walter's up on his data; he knows that roughly half a million birds are killed every years by loose housecats.  But armed with fervour and facts, he fails to use tact.  Meanwhile, the mother is up on her Christianity and knows that cats are here for our use, as are the trees and land and birds.  She knows her cat, who is a member of the family, likes to go outside, in spite of the fact that it never talks to her.  So it's her godgiven right to put out the cat to kill the godgiven birds.  This scene is a brilliant evocation of world views in collision.

I cannot say, however, that this is a well-shaped novel.  I struggled to understand why some events deserved rather long and tedious scenes (like Joey's South American trip with the physically beautiful but hideously self-centred Jenna) while others (like daughter Jessica's insight into Patty's need for a job that meant something and her observation that Patty clearly liked young kids so...) got summarized in an off-handed way.  In fact, Jessica generally gets short shrift, while self-centred Joey gets tedious in his inability to be satisfied by anything.  We get family history at the most unpredictable moments, as if just then Franzen has discovered the background to a new facet of his characters.  So the novel seems somewhat provisional--not a bad thing, perhaps, for a meditation on freedom.  I'm grateful to Franzen for his exuberance, his ability with a couple of gestures to evoke an historical moment, his understanding of the human even as we strive to transcend it.

From my pre-retirement point of view, Walden Pond, and Thoreau's exhortation to "simplify!  Simplify!" exemplifies freedom.

The photograph of trees at Walden Pond is by Veronica Geminder, whose work can be found here.

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