New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux
2010, 562 pages
I became familiar with the work of Jonathan Franzen some years ago when I stumbled upon his 2001 novel The Corrections, a witty and sometimes scathing satire of contemporary American suburbia. While I found the novel fascinating, I found Franzen's prose to be even more spectacular, and I marvelled at the author's ability to create beautiful and challenging sentences that simultaneously seemed effortless.
Franzen's newest novel, Freedom, will certainly appeal to those who enjoyed The Corrections, though the satire is toned down a bit in favor of social commentary. Using the lives of a dysfunctional family as a literary vehicle, Franzen examines such issues as metastatic consumerism, unthinking partisanship, and ecological sustainability. Franzen toiled to make readers dislike most of the main characters, and yet they manage to redeem themselves and even offer hope for the future.
Part of the appeal of Freedom to me is the depth of knowledge that Franzen possesses in a wide range of fields, and several times I found myself putting down the book to read up on topics the author referenced, subjects as seemingly diverse as the Cerulean warbler and mountaintop removal mining.
Part of Franzen's appeal as a writer can be found in the esoteric bits of humor and pathos found throughout the book. It takes a little knowledge of the Vedic traditions to known that the character Lalitha - devoted to reducing human population growth - has a name associated with the devotion to the Hindu Divine Mother, and the fact that Lalitha at one point considers getting her tubes tied cannot be a coincidence. Likewise, the Berglund family comes of age on Barrier Street, which seems to be a wry commentary about conflict in a gentrified and atomized neighborhood.
The conceptual understanding of freedom takes on many meanings in Freedom, from an individual desire to be free from want and worry to larger issues about the freedom of entire nations. Moreover, Franzen challenges readers on simplistic notions about what, exactly, constitutes a state of freedom, and examines people who attain what they believe to be freedom only to find that the freedom they sought was a chimera, and perhaps they were freer while still shackled to obligations like marriage, family, and work.
Freedom is not a light read, nor is it the kind of book that offers simple solutions to complex problems. Yet the book will likely stay with readers long afterward, forcing them to re-examine their lives and question their place in the world. Freedom is far more than literary gymnastics, and the ride is well worth the metaphorical ticket.