Saturday, February 26, 2011

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

This is an enormous book.  This is a wonderful book.  This is a book that I found engaging and thought provoking, without actually loving it, but I couldn't put it down.  Like the characters, this book is prickly to live with, but worth the effort.  Franzen does not need my endorsement, as he's doing just fine, but he has it nonetheless.

I read The Corrections back when there was all that fuss about it, and I actually loved it.  Sure, there were problems, and "talking turds" were given a strenuous critical lashing, but to me it said so much about the joys and disasters of family that I heartily embraced it.  Sadly, I must have read it before starting this blog, because when I went back to read my review, there wasn't one.

So any nuanced discussion of the relationship between The Corrections and Freedom will have to wait until I re-read the earlier book.  (Now I'm wondering--did I borrow it from the library, or is it living in one of my bookshelves?)

Anyway, back to Freedom.  It is fundamentally the story of Walter and Patty Berglund and their marriage.  When they met, Patty was a women's basketball star at the University of Minnesota and Walter an earnest student at Macalester College. We get some background into how they arrived in the same place--Patty's family were well-off in New York, but she never fit in and basically fled to the Midwest to escape the rest of them.  Walter's family ran a sketchy motel in Hibbing, and he moved to the city to escape his alcoholic father.. They were brought together through Walter's roommate, Richard Katz, a devastating bad-boy musician and Walter's opposite in nearly every way.  Patty is attracted to Richard, Walter is in love with Patty, and Richard does the most un-selfish thing he ever does in his entire life by driving Patty away from himself and into Walter's life.  After graduation and their marriage, Patty becomes Donna Reed from It's a Wonderful Life, renovating a run-down Victorian house in Saint Paul and being a full time mother to their two children, Jessica and Joey.

Walter graduates from law school and works first for 3M (total Minnesota shout-outs in this portion of the book), and then for the Nature Conservancy.  Franzen mostly skims their lives from the time Patty gives up Richard until nearly 20 years later, when Joey Berglund causes parental grief.  Walter and Patty are "stereotypical" liberal Minnesotans, signified deftly by their driving Volvos and listening to NPR.  Joey hits puberty and locks himself into battle with his father, becoming Franzen's version of Alex P. Keaton.

(In fact, there is a kind of echo of Family Ties in this book--you can see Patty as Meredith Baxter Birney--warm and likeable, a good mother generally but occasionally out of her depth, while Michael Gross plays Walter as kind of a feckless pussy of a man.  Jessica has less personality than either Justine Bateman or Tina Yothers, so that part of the analogy fails.  But you can pick either one of them as a visual reference for Jessica as we proceed through the review.)

Joey wants money.  There is no reason we ever learn for his insatiable desire for riches, but it is possibly tied up in his battle with his father.  Walter doesn't particularly care about money, and Joey is able to absolutely push Walter to fury on the topic.  By the time he's 16, Joey has moved out of the family home and moved in next door with his girlfriend Connie and her feckless family.  In time, Joey graduates from high school and goes to the University of Virginia, where he struggles to establish himself.  He can't quite bring himself to commit to Connie, but he can't give her up either.  He falls into the thrall of his roommate's family--a neocon political think tank father and the beautiful sister, but never quite commits himself there either.  He dabbles in war speculation, ultimately serving as a sub-subcontractor to deliver shoddy parts for shoddy trucks shipped to the military for use in Iraq.  He can't quite bring himself to take the profits or to turn whistle-blower--a common theme for his life.  He marries Connie on a whim, then can't bring himself to tell his family, nor can he entirely give up his pursuit of the beautiful sister.

Walter, however, is the engine of the book.  Through his work with the Nature Conservancy, he makes the acquaintance of Vin Haven, a Texas billionaire who hires Walter to create a sanctuary for the cerulean warbler, a tiny blue bird that migrates between South America and West Virginia.  Haven's controversial plan is to buy a hundred square miles of West Virginia land, mine out all the coal in the fastest (and most ecologically perilous) manner possible, then reclaim the land for the cerulean warblers.

The plan is rather bold and also counter-intuitive, and Walter is a bit too naive to see the (inevitable) damage it will do to his principles to participate.  He can see the brilliance of the plan--if you remove the coal before converting the land to sanctuary, there will never be any pressure to destroy the sanctuary for the underlying mineral resources.  However, it requires that he trust coal companies and oil men--historically not the greatest of conservators.  In pursuit of this goal, Walter and Patty move to Georgetown, and live in the townhouse that is the Cerulean Warbler Mountain Trust.  Walter's assistant also lives in the townhouse, and she is a beautiful 26 year old who is visibly in love with Walter.  The marriage is in trouble.

Of course, it has been in trouble before--Patty's unresolved lust for Richard resulted in a weekend fling and then the joint decision that they both loved Walter too much to cheat on him with each other.  Walter was mercifully unaware of this for years.  However, Patty had little to do in Washington, and became increasingly depressed and hard to live with, while Lalitha's beauty and obvious devotion to Walter was increasingly difficult for him to resist.  Things come to a head one weekend when Richard arrives in DC at Walter's request to help him start "Free Space" a movement to arrest overpopulation.

Free Space is Walter's gift to himself as he feels increasingly dirtied by the deals he's making to achieve the cerulean warbler sanctuary.  As Walter sees it, the root of all environmental difficulty lies in the fact of too many humans on the planet, and he wants to do something to reverse the steady growth of human population.  The idea is to appeal to youth through a series of rock concerts and music on the topic, and Richard is their key to musical credibility.  Richard agrees to help, mostly because he senses the Berglund's marital troubles are a chance for him to get back together with Patty.  Patty tries to fend Richard off with her therapy manuscript,(which compromises a large section of the book), ostensibly because it shows how much she loves Walter.  Richard reads it, leaves DC after putting the manuscript on Walter's desk.

Of course, Walter reads it and is infuriated by Patty's betrayal with Richard, even though it was years before.  He throws Patty out of the house and lets himself fall in love with Lalitha.  They travel together for several months, running the Free Space battles of the the bands, set to culminate near the cerulean warbler habitat in West Virginia.  Walter and Lalitha have the closest thing to a fight, and she goes back to W.Va ahead of him, and is killed in an auto accident.

All of this is well written, closely observed, carefully researched, and mere set up for the novel's last 30 pages.  Six years have passed, and Patty is working as a teacher's aide in New York, while Walter is back in Minnesota, working a low level job back at the Nature Conservancy.  He is living in the old lake cabin that used to belong to his mother, the same cabin where Patty and Richard had their tryst, which Richard made into a successful album he called Nameless Lake.  Development has reached the lake, and Walter goes door to door asking the residents of the McMansions to please keep their cats indoors--he cites statistics that nationally, cats kill over 1 million birds per day.  There is a conflict set up with the mostly unlikeable Linda Haufbonner (?), who refuses to curb her cat and takes personal offense at Walter.  Over the course of a couple of years, things escalate.  Then Patty shows up at the cabin.

Walter has refused to talk to Patty, or even about Patty to his children.  They are not divorced, because Walter doesn't want to do anything that will bring the living, vibrant Patty back into his life, and destroy the remaining fragments of memory he has of Lalitha.  He has essentially frozen himself, working to keep enough life to get out of bed in the morning and to sleep at night.  Patty shows up at his door, underdressed for the autumn weather, and sits on his doorstep refusing to move and eventually subjecting herself to hypothermia.  Walter literally can't stand to watch her kill herself, so he brings her inside and warms her back to life.  She returns the favor, spending about a year repairing relations with the neighbors in the development--especially the noxious Linda Haufbonner.  The neighbors are sorry when Patty lets them know the two will be moving back to NYC at the end of the summer.  In a lovely touch, the cabin and its woods are left to a land trust and turned into a bird sanctuary.

For a precis, that was quite long.  And as interesting as the plot developments are, the book is most engaging in the connections and motifs and themes, of which there are so many that this review is going to get quite unwieldy.

How Do We Live?

The main issue of the book is the question of "how do we live?"  Franzen explicitly raises the question in the introductory portion of the book, before we know very much about the Berglunds and their lives.  Walter has been hardworking and mostly absent from the neighborhood life, while Patty has been tirelessly generous and social.  However, when Joey moved into Connie's house, Patty went a little crazy and began a vendetta against that family, trying to enlist neighborhood support.  One of the neighbors isn't too sorry to see them go to DC, and says that the problem is that Patty "never learned how to live."

The theme repeats in multiple ways.  Most obviously is Walter's obsession with (and disapproval of) the way American culture gobbles up resources.  Coal mining, gas drilling, SUVs, giant TVs, huge houses on enormous lawns, strip malls--all are targets of his anger.  Patty's loss of identity in DC is another version--she doesn't work, she no longer has kids to raise, she's depressed and disappointed, yet not able to change things until they go completely wrong that one weekend.  The question gets re-addressed with Patty's mother and siblings once her father dies.  There is "an estate" that is the focus of much familial disfunction, and Patty ends up helping her mother sell it off and use the money to improve the lives of her siblings.  First, sister Abigail, a performance artist who uses the inheritance to extract herself from a squalid bohemian existence in NYC, forming a troupe of female comics who become quite successful in Italy.  There is the other sister Veronica, who wants only to practice yoga and paint, to live a solitary life in which she doesn't have to work.  There is a brother, Edgar, who lost a fortune in Asian stocks, and ended up living on "the estate," subsistence farming the grounds with his Russian Jewish wife and five children.  There were uncles to be bought off, and each of Patty's siblings had a different idea of how the money should be allocated.

Joey also has to weigh various options of how to live.  He wants to see himself as a "hard man," but isn't certain he has the stomach for it.  He wants his roommate's beautiful sister Jenna, but doesn't believe he has the ability to earn the kind of money she expects from a husband.  He wants to escape his father, but ultimately finds Walter to be the only one he can confess to.  He is drawn to wealth, but doesn't have the coldness he sees as necessary to become wealthy.  The telling incident of Joey is the lost wedding ring.  He has married his long time girlfriend Connie on a whim in New York, but can't bring himself to publicly acknowledge his action.  He plays with his wedding band in his mouth, sucking on it and knocking it against his teeth, while talking on the phone and abjuring Connie not to tell her own mother, lest the information get back to his parents.  He is also "explaining" to her why he is stopping in Buenos Aires rather than going directly to see the salvaged truck parts he is supposed to be buying in Paraguay--while leaving out the important detail that he is travelling with Jenna.  After hanging up, he accidentally swallows the ring.

Part of him thinks he should just buy a replacement ring--it would be $300 and Connie would never know the difference.  Yet the ring holds real emotional value to him, and he ends up paying $297 for an ER visit only to learn there is nothing to be done other than waiting for it to pass and retrieving it.  Of course, the moment arrives while he's in a Patagonia hotel room with Jenna, finding that he has to physically handle his own feces in order to retrieve the ring--and the incident ends his infatuation with the unattainable Jenna.

I Hate Cats

I am embarrassed that I didn't catch this one earlier--the deliberate homophonic "cats" and "Katz."  Throughout the book, Richard lives a rock and roll lifestyle, that involves sleeping with lots of different (young) women.  In fact, he more or less preys on them, albeit often with their permission.  He spends most of the book sniffing around Walter's house trying to catch Patty as well.  This pattern is clearly parallel to the situation with Linda Haufbonner's obnoxious cat "Bobby," a near feral sociopathic animal who kills birds on Walter's property and leaves their broken bodies behind.  Bobby rarely eats his victims (not "animal" behavior, but more like "human" sport hunting) and doesn't take them home to his "family."  Ultimately, Walter live traps Bobby and takes him to a rescue organization in the Cities, there to either be euthenized or adopted by a family that will keep him indoors.  Similarly, Richard is metaphorically caged and removed from Walter's life.


Lalitha's fate is a human-sized version of the plight of the migratory birds Walter tries to save.  Franzen writes about how fragile and tiny birds are, and how they are mowed down by wind turbines and airplanes and sport hunters, how when they reach their summer grounds the habitat is often logged or developed or paved over.  Lalitha's dies while driving a small (fragile) car, hit or run off the road by the heavy coal mining equipment that dominates the unsafe West Virginia roads.  Later, Walter muses on how his memory of Lalitha is breaking up, a feeling that is echoed in his thoughts on the fragility of birds--bits of fluff and bone, nearly weightless once their tiny hearts stop beating.

Only Connect

The message of E.M. Forester's great book Howard's End is the importance of human connection, and Franzen illustrates this in the last section of his book.  Walter is deliberately emotionally frozen, trying to keep time from progressing and erasing his memories of Lalitha.  He is cold and distant to his neighbors, his children, and himself.  When Patty shows up on his doorstep, she deliberately refuses Walter's orders to "go warm up!" until she is nearly dead of hypothermia.  Walter carries her inside the cabin, covers her in blankets, and strips himself first and then her, in order to share the body heat to keep her alive.  There is a lovely poetic description of when she comes to and stares at him, and he sees how fragile their lives are in the face of the great chasm of death--and he begins to thaw as well.  Patty brings her warmth and life to the neighbors in the development, warming their impressions of Walter.

I'm sure I could go on, and as I read other reviews and analyses of this book, I will post an update.  Is Freedom the Great American Novel?  Probably not, but it is definitely worth reading.

Grade: A

1 comment:

Matthew Selwyn said...

Wow, thanks for such a full review! I must admit I am still torn on Freedom (, but looking around I'm certainly seeing a full spectrum of opinion. Certainly Freedom divides.