Jul 20, 2012

Notes on 'Freedom'

I read Franzen’s celebrated The Corrections last year and reviewed it here. To ask me to choose between the earlier novel and Freedom would be like asking a woman to choose between poetry and perfume.

Despite the similarities, there are obvious differences between the two novels. Freedom clearly exhibits its creator’s age - by age I don’t imply any bettering of his craft; simply, that he is more obviously sentimental, more accepting of human failures and the lies we tell ourselves and each other to make life bearable.

There are obvious flaws in the story, its ending being a convenient copout that enables everyone to live-as-happily-as-they-could-ever-after. But this is Franzen writing after 9/11, after the collapse of the Lehman Brothers, after he has seen thousands of families losing their homes, and the government embroiled in an endless war on terror. This is Franzen who knows that the great culture of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln has long disappeared and states like Arizona are now seeking Bills that will enable public officials to arrest Hispanics and other minorities without an actual warrant should they be suspected of not carrying proper papers.

There’s a reason why Franzen is hailed as The American novelist of our times, up there with Fitzgerald and Steinbeck and Roth. A lot of American novelists have managed to capture the fine details and nuances of what it means to live in America, what is it that distinguishes this great nation from the Continent, its all embracing culture at odds with its history of violence and racism. But Franzen goes a step further. He brings to us the smells of Taco Bell, the staid lifestyle in the god-fearing midwest, the upward social mobility and distancing from one’s roots as one moves eastwards, and in the midst of all this, he places the minds and thoughts of actual lived lives. His characters are never caricatures trying to support an idea, they are all people who we have met at the supermarket, who we are in our daily lives.

The Corrections recounted 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. Educated, financially sound, holders of liberal principles, the Berglunds have everything and slowly proceed to lose it all. Introducing and explaining their liberal attitudes, Franzen adds with a nasty aside that they were the "the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege."

Patty and Walter live in the suburbs of St Paul, Minnesota, with their two children Jessica and Joey. The novel opens just as the Berglunds are about to relocate to Washington DC from Minnesota, after Joey has left home and moved in with their next door neighbor, and Jessica is practically not on speaking terms with her mother. We learn that Patty was a former basketball champion who was forced to give up the game after an injury; though she was always strongly attracted to Richard Katz, lead singer of the indie band The Traumatics, she ended up marrying his best friend Walter. Things nearly develop between Patty and Richard whom Patty knows she is ‘somewhat more than sort of into’ but not quite.

While the reader may gnash his teeth in frustration at Patty’s impulsive marriage, Franzen has done enough groundwork before to prepare us for this. Patty is the daughter of the powerful and influential Emersons who clearly have no use for a jock daughter and are only too happy when she chooses to apply to an out-of-state college. These are people who are willing to look the other way when they learn that Patty has been raped by the son of one of their close associates. Confronting Patty’s outrage after the incident, “Her dad turned to her like an attorney. Like an adult addressing another adult, ‘ You drop it’, he said. Forget abt it; move on.”

So acute is Patty’s loneliness and misery in her earliest years that everything she does in retrospect, is a life-long reaction to these events and their terrible impact on her psyche. Later she writes, ‘Looking back now, (she) sees her younger self as one of those miserable adolescents so angry at her parents that she needed to join a cult where she could be nicer and friendlier and more generous and subservient than she could bring herself to be at home anymore. Her cult just happened to be basketball.’ When she meets Walter, it seems to be the ‘first time that a person had ever looked through her jock exterior and; seen lights on inside.’

As for Walter, he is besotted with Patty from the moment he lays eyes on her and insists on believing the best about her, despite evidence to the contrary! Is it any wonder that this girl ends up marrying him? More importantly, what is the true significance of a bond borne out of deep need and insecurity on the one hand, and unreal deification on the other?

The initial years of marriage are good, with Patty playing the role of the social butterfly, always meeting her neighbours ‘with a plate of cookies or a card or some lilies of the valleys in a little thrift-store vase that she told you not to bother returning’, and Walter being the upright employee who his company assigns to 'outreach and philanthropy, a corporate cul-de-sac where niceness was an asset’. This mention of his proverbial and incurable niceness is interesting since later we are told that ‘the fatal defect in his (Walter’s) own makeup, (was) the defect of pitying even the beings he most hated.’

Even before we know, things start to spiral downwards and the perfect couple make a hell of their own. As in life, everyone has an opinion about this too; the neighbours are quick to pronounce, ‘Patty had too much time on her hands. In the old days, she’d been great with the little kids, teaching them sports and domestic arts, but now most of the kids on the street were teenagers.’ And thus, once again, Patty is cruelly diagnosed as the frivolous housewife with too much time and too little to do.

The unraveling of their marriage which follows is hardly surprising. We, as readers have anticipated this with dread even as Walter and Patty were busy playing house. Joey, always precocious and fairly rude as a child, abruptly decides he’s had enough of his moralising, interfering parents and moves next door where he takes up with his under-age girlfriend Connie. It is an entirely different matter that the Joey-Connie story will form the other love story in this novel that is far more moving and unusual than Walter and Patty’s. Indeed, Frazen’s portrait of the sexually-ravenous Connie alone should make him eligible for literary awards.

Soon, Walter compromises on his lifelong idealistic principles and agrees to work for Texas baron Vin Haven, part of the George W. Bush coterie, who decide to strip-mine a particular region in West Virginia for coal and later allot the land for the breeding of an endangered avian species – the Cerulean Warbler. Walter justifies his decision on the grounds that he’ll finally have the means and reach to save this endangered species and also promote his campaign against overpopulation. His fast crumbling marriage to Patty is not helped when his young assistant ardently starts wooing him besides being his greatest support at work. To make matters worse, Joey gets embroiled in some shady deals involving supplying trucks for the American forces in Iraq; and opportunity finally throws Patty and Richard in each other’s way where they promptly proceed to fuck each other’s happiness - to employ a cliché.

In terms of a storyline, one might argue that Freedom mirrors the lives of several other such marriage sagas. But what makes Franzen’s prose stand out is the astute way he sees through his characters and explains their weaknesses. This doesn’t make them any less culpable, it just makes us more human. Thus, he beseeches our understanding when he writes, ‘She didn’t think she was an alcoholic. She wasn’t an alcoholic. ……………It wasn’t alcoholism; it was self-defense.”

It would be amiss to talk about the novel without a mention of the clever way in which Franzen structures his narrative. Each section ends on a tantalising note where the character’s story is ruptured just when something momentous is about to happen or a long-awaited resolution is imperative. As we glimpse the different characters from each others’ perspectives, we realise that there are no heroes, just like there are no villains. Richard, Joey and Patty are all victims of their most earnest efforts to learn better and to be better. This ‘better’ comes naturally to Walter, but it is no less important when it blossoms in the others for that is the source of all healing. That is what lies at the heart of this tale of loss and redemption.

No post is ever complete without a note on its theme. What is Franzen really trying to explore and how does it tie in with the title? Is Franzen shedding light on the destructive nature of too much freedom? While this may be true, it is too simplistic. Perhaps, the subtler theme is: there is but one freedom which we all enjoy – the freedom to nurture or destroy those around us. This being so, what is the ideal state? And, how does one go through life, knowing as we now do, that we all bear the burden of that boundless freedom? As Joey wonders, ‘He’d asked for his freedom, they’d granted it, and he couldn’t go back now.’