In Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom is something devoutly to be wished, and yet turns out to be a trap in and of itself. It turns out, over and over again, that the trappings and constraints of life are preferable from freedom from these trappings.
The story is told in the third person, telling the stories of Patty, Walter, Joey, and Richard, as well as their families around them. Patty is the damaged basketball star daughter of a WASPy NY family, who travels to college in Minnesota on a sports scholarship. Walter is the good son who helps his parents to tend to their motel on weekends and summers, which his brother spends his life drinking and avoiding anything that might resemble work. Richard is a musician who is mostly interested in having sex with, and then discarding, as many women as possible, and has no real respect for anyone, especially himself, with the exceptions of Walter and, sometimes, Patty. They come together in collage, with Walter and Richard living as roommates who love each other (in a purely heterosexual way), though the respect is one sided. Richard respects Walter for his goodness and his kind heart. Walter likes Richard a lot, enjoys being his friend, but is dismayed by his treatment of women, most of whom he dislikes, which he expresses to them by seducing them, sleeping with them, and then ignoring them. Patty desires Richard and his cool aloofness, but she loves Walter. She runs away with Richard, but has second thoughts and comes home to Walter. They marry, have children, and set up a quiet life in the suburbs. Joey is Patty and Walter’s son, a boy so adored by his mother that he is suffocating under her attention. He escapes into the house of his right-wing-trashy next door neighbors, finding his very young self happy in the the bed of their daughter, who is older, but only by a couple of years.
The story spans the time from just before Patty, Walter, and Richard meet in the late 70s or early 80s, until present day, and travels back and forth, with foreshadowing and details revealed slowly and with purpose. Patty and Walter were the first of the neighborhood to be into recycling, carbon footprints, and modern parenting. And yet, 15 years later, they’ve moved to Washington DC, where Walter (the environmental lawyer) is suddenly in bed with big coal, and Patty has become depressive, drinking her life away. Richard is enjoying a new success, which is freaking him the hell out. Joey, rather than moving to DC with his family, has decided to stay with the neighbors and their daughter. And Richard is still in the picture, still wanting Patty, Patty still wanting him, and the marriage slowing crumbling under the stress of who-knows-what. Boredom at first glance, but more than that, it’s a desire for freedom, freedom from the very decisions that they’ve each made all along.
The story moves along, explaining their sins and virtues, transgressions and loyalties. Franzen can turn a phrase quite nicely, such as this one, where Richard (Katz) is ruminating about Patty and why she is different from the other women:
For a moment, in what passed for his soul, a door opened wide enough for him to glimpse his pride in its pathetic woundedness, but he slammed the door shut and considered how stupid he’d been to let himself want her. Yes, he liked the way she talked, yes, he had a fatal weakness for a certain smart depressive kind of chick, but the only way he knew to interact with a chick like that was to fuck her, walk away, come back and fuck her again, walk away again, hate her again, fuck her again, and so forth. He wished he could go back in time now and congratulate the self he’d been at twenty-four, in that foul squat on the South Side of Chicago, for having recognized that a woman like Patty was meant for a man like Walter, who, whatever his other silliness might be, had the patience and imagination to handle her. The mistake that Katz had made since then had been to keep returning to the scene in which he was bound to feel defeated.
I’ve read a couple of reviews describing Freedom as the great American novel. Eh. I would say that I was engrossed by the story, and that Franzen has a definite talent for turning a phrase and forcing you to look at some uncomfortable truths about yourself, your friends, your family, and the world in which you live. But his characters are difficult to understand, their motivations not clear enough, often enough, to allow you to really care for them. In a book of this length (562 pages), I wanted to be swept into the story, but also to really care for and understand the characters. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed by the book, so much as that I’m not sure what all of the fuss is about.