On the Road to George Clooney's connectionless corporate downsizer in Up In The Air (via Walter Kirn's novel). Just about every red-blooded American has fantasized about the attractiveness of no attachments, of total privilege to do whatever is wanted whenever. But, as Jonathan Franzen explains in one of the more profound passages in his fascinating new novel Freedom: "The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should that dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage."
And so what we have here is 550 immensely readable pages devoted to the idea of exploring the limits of freedom within the context of oft-damaged and then re-mended relationships between a family and one particular friend. At what point does one person's freedom infringe upon another's? And at that point, is freedom still freedom? Indeed, these questions have fluid, multi-hued answers, especially as time passes and relationships change. But one thing about this book is clear: Many years from now, this novel will no doubt be cited as the prime example of the Franzen oeuvre: stories about families that aren't so much dysfunctional as problem-heavy.
And liberal environmentalist Walter Berglund, his wife Patty, and their long-time musician friend Richard Katz, are certainly besought with problems; but these problems are generally a result of their own poor choices, and the resulting secrets. In fact, another question the novel poses is to what degree do families have freedom to keep secrets from each other?
That question and the delicious conflict it creates is what makes the meat of the novel — and what makes it un-putdownable. Will these secrets be revealed, and if so, how will the revelation effect the characters' relationships? Franzen is a master at rendering these relationships — the ebb and flow, the who-needs-whom-more dynamic, the power struggles. Walter and Patty's marriage is the cornerstone of the novel, but how they both relate to Richard provides the intrigue. Walter and Patty's children, Jessica and Joey also flit in and out of the novel, often playing key roles in the side-taking and blame game when things go awry. And their stories are interesting in and of themselves — from the moment teenage Joey tests the limits of his own freedom by moving out of his home to his next-door neighbors'.
So Freedom is highly recommended. It's a long book, yes, but very readable — Franzen's prose flows effortlessly. He's just a joy to read. (By the way, see below for one of my favorite sentences of all time.) But in order to "limit" this novel to 550 pages, Franzen has to spend vast swaths of pages in summary — the one part of the novel, though minor, that was irritating. Just tell me the story, I thought. I'd happily read another 500 pages of this! Also, isn't it sort of clunky to write an entire novel that plumbs the limits of freedom, and then title it "Freedom"? Again, a minor annoyance. So I'd subtract a half a star from my rating: 4.5 out of 5. This is top-shelf contemporary literature. Enjoy it!
Near-perfect sentence: "He'd lost his good looks, or, more precisely, they had shrunk into a small facial oasis in a desert of sunburned bloat."