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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, 2010, * * * *

Freedom is a close cousin to Franzen's previous novel - The Corrections -  a social-realist epic about a depressive, entropic midwestern family being swallowed and digested by the insatiable anaconda of modernity. The Corrections told the story of the Lamberts—Arthur and Enid and their three children. Freedom tells the story of the Berglunds—Walter and Patty and their two children. Instead of St. Jude (a proxy for St. Louis) we have St. Paul. Instead of a dubious get-rich-quick scheme exploiting the post-Soviet chaos in Lithuania, we have a dubious get-rich-quick scheme exploiting the war in Iraq. Like its predecessor, Freedom is heavy on psychology and extramarital affairs and earnest speechifying (capitalism, overpopulation, Israel). Freedom tells a lot of stories, and it spreads them over many decades and several continents. It tracks the rise of a rock star, the gentrification of a city neighborhood, the tragic death of a basketball career, the suburbanization of a nameless country pond, and the dirty birth of an international bird sanctuary. The book’s central drama, however, is an old-fashioned love story: the tumultuous lifelong relationship between Walter and Patty Berglund. Walter is a nature lover who works hard to suppress his anger and provide for everyone around him. Patty is a college basketball star who blows out her knee and becomes a housewife. Each fills certain gaping spiritual holes for the other until eventually, over the years, their relationship becomes hellaciously complex.  As the novel progresses, you see this relationship from many different perspectives—Walter’s, Patty’s, their son Joey’s, their friend Richard’s—and each view subtly tweaks the story, swinging blame, exposing motives, recasting villains as heroes and heroes as villains.  It made me think, many times, of one of David Foster Wallace’s favorite edicts about fiction: that the good stuff can make readers feel less lonely.

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