Walter and Patty Berglund were classic gentrifiers of St. Paul: present, communicative parents, advocates for healthy food and a better environment, model citizens. The two were the envy of their neighbors–a perfect example of a happy marriage. In the new millennium, though, things have started to go awry. When their teenage son moves in with the neighbors, Walter quits his job to work for Big Coal, and Patty seems to go a little batty, people start to wonder about what has happened to their neighbors.
Franzen is one of those divisive writers people either love or love to hate. His follow up to The Corrections is an ambitious, epically sprawling novel that tries to encapsulate the feelings of the new millennium through a nuclear family, but it falls short of its ultimate goal. Despite an intriguing premise and an intricately-woven narrative (told in alternating perspectives from some of the book’s characters), Franzen’s novel ultimately feels a little unsatisfying.
Part of the problem is the novel’s own self-involvement. Although Franzen’s main point–that the word “freedom” has become a sort of a catch-all for the pursuit of individual liberties–as well as becoming synonymous with “power,” the novel ends up so obsessed with the word “freedom” that every time the word (or a version of it) appears, it seems to scream “LOOK! THEME! THEME! THEME!” The fact that Franzen beats the reader over the head with his point is not particularly endearing.
Neither, then, are his characters. While they are certainly compelling characters (with, perhaps, the exception of the Berglund’s son Joey, who is slimy and weaselly and completely disgusting), none are particularly likable. The characters are richly drawn and deeply flawed, but their flaws make them whiny, selfish, and annoying. It doesn’t seem as though any one of them learns a thing about themselves, and in a novel this long, that’s…a difficult pill to swallow.
All of this isn’t to say that this reader didn’t enjoy the novel. Parts of it are particularly enjoyable–Franzen’s tour through parts of the Twin Cities are fun for Minnesotans especially. Rich writing and well-developed characters make for an interesting (if not always completely engaging) read. However, Franzen’s tone–which goes from sardonic and archly ironic to flat-out tragic–makes the book’s ending hard to take.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2010. Purchased copy.