In his essay “Why Bother?, Jonathan Franzen sets out a credo for what he calls the necessary “tragic realism” of the contemporary novelist:
The point of calling serious fiction tragic is to highlight its distance from the rhetoric of optimism that so pervades our culture. The necessary lie of every successful regime, including the upbeat techno-corporatism under which we now live, is that the regime has made the world a better place. Tragic realism preserves the recognition that improvement always comes at a cost; that nothing lasts forever; that if the good in the world outweighs the bad, it’s by the slimmest of margins (How To Be Alone, 91).
Franzen’s novels deal with the personal consequences of this realisation: what he calls “the Ache” that defines human existence, “the Ache of our not being, each of us, the center of the universe; of our desires forever outnumbering the means of satisfying them.” Of particular interest to Franzen is the ways in which the dominant narratives with which we make sense of our lives in contemporary capitalist democracies, with their “upbeat” emphasis on self-confidence, choice, success, and progress, tend to oversimplify, leading those whose lives have not taken the expected course to feel like freaks and failures. Franzen pits his characters against the complex realities in which they find themselves, armed with only these cultural bromides. Ultimately, Franzen’s heroes are those who adjust to a more tragic — or tragi-comic – worldview.
The Corrections, the novel for which Franzen is most famous, chronicled the tragi-comic lives of the Lamberts, a mid-western, middle-class family beset in equal measure by hope and anxiety. With its mixture of scathing accuracy and pity, Franzen’s beleaguered protagonists are portrayed struggling with Alzheimer’s, adultery, depression, alcoholism, and faded Liberal ideals. In other words, for a great number of Franzen’s readers, they seemed like a normal family, presented to us in starker relief than the way we see our own. The Lamberts are faced with the necessary task of realising that their lives are not what the American Dream implicitly promised: life is still a vexed and difficult exercise, and all the wealth and possibility around them can still be withheld.
In Freedom, Franzen revisits some of this territory, putting a Liberal-leaning, middle-class family at the centre of his tale. Walter and Patty Berglund move to St Paul, Minnesota, to a neighbourhood that is somewhat down-and-out, and spearhead the gentrification of its inner-urban blight. The Berglunds are model neighbours – Walter bicycles to his job at 3M while Patty bakes cookies and babysits the daughter of a local single mother. After some years pass, stress fractures appear in this idyll: Patty is inappropriately lenient and confessional with her wayward son, Joey, while she more or less ignores her much more reliable daughter Jessica. There are squabbles over parenting between her and Walter. There’s more, too: Joey moves in with the beer-swilling, truck driving, white-supremacist, Republican-voting neighbours. The child Patty has stoically baby-sat has become Joey’s sexually precocious and endlessly pliable girlfriend and he now lives with her and her trashy mother – along with a dubious step-father figure whose tastes run to pick-up trucks and noisy, garish renovations. Patty, once the super-nice stay-at-home mum, is the chief suspect when the pick-up’s tyres are slashed.
Meanwhile, an old college friend of Walter’s, Richard Katz, lives a life of seemingly permanent adolescence as an indie rocker. He drops in on his old friends every five years or so, as he is passing through, touring with his band. Richard’s presence in the Berglund’s lives serves various purposes – in the early years of their marriage, he functions as a measure of how far they have come from the scratch days of DIY renovations and changing nappies. But, as the marriage sours and Richard’s seemingly endless obscurity flowers into full-blown fame, his presence is increasingly disturbing. While Patty married the faithful and earnest Walter, it was not without a backward glance at his seductive, womanising college roommate. With her children grown, at a loose end, Patty’s thoughts return again to this old, unextinguished flame. For his part, Walter leaves his unremarkable job to take up environmental activism funded by none other than coal interests. Thinking that he can ‘take the devil’s money to do God’s work’ Walter ends up embroiled in scandal, alienated from both his coal-mining bosses and the environmental movement he ostensibly serves.
Freedom is at its best during the vignettes that crystallise the lives of their characters: Patty’s most successful college basketball games during her days as a sporting star, and her entanglement with a female stalker; Walter’s brain-snap at the launch of the mountain-top removal coal mining site, and the magnificent rants he lets forth on over-population and the environmental collapse it will precipitate. Joey Berglund and Richard Katz also play their part. In Joey, Franzen shows a young man’s attempt to actually live by the venality and corruption that seems the dominant model of how to run a life – and honourably fail. Richard’s story is one of unintentional commercial success and how fame can hollow out a person’s sense of their character and creativity. The ability of a media culture to devour even its most sceptical participants is explored here.
About a third into the narrative, Patty visits Philadelphia to see her daughter at a Parents’ Weekend at Jessica’s college. Her visit to this city founded by Quakers is a turning point as she observes the carved words on the main college building, chosen by the Class of 1920: “USE WELL THY FREEDOM.” As with The Corrections the personal is taken as a symptom of larger social forces and ideas. The admonishment of the Class of 1920 resonates across the narrative as each of Franzen’s characters deal with the failure of personal idealism to create an ideal life – and the apparent defeat of those ideals in the larger public arena. The Berglunds’ errors and struggles are minute and private, but they are also manifestations of larger forces of ineptitude and mendacity. Franzen situates their lives in a political context: a Bush era, Iraq war, oil price, urban-sprawl, financial crisis context that connotes a particular bleakness, a creeping emergency. Reading the novel is like watching a car-crash in slow, inevitable motion.
Perhaps it was this sense of preordained disaster, but I found the Berglunds more remote than the Lamberts, for reasons I cannot quite quantify. Their various fates seemed plausible, but at a remove from the vantage point offered by the narrative. However, this was a very absorbing read, that explored how even in a republic built on the premise of freedom and liberty, no freedom is perfect or without hazards, and no political ideology saves us from human frailty. There is also the saving grace of Franzen’s deadly humour, generated from scenes of grotesque banality. The novel lives out Franzen’s commitment to a saving complexity. He fleshes out the predicaments of his characters in counter-point to the reductive narratives of success that surround them. Jessica is the only character who emerges relatively unscathed, merely by dint of hard work and a clear-eyed sanity. Patty, Walter, Joey, and Richard are redeemed, not in a blaze of glory, but in the ways they quietly refute the beliefs – -about the world and about themselves — they set out with.
With this novel, Franzen is still in the territory of “the Ache”. May he long bring us news from there — it is where we live.