I can’t decide whether I liked Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. The irony of my indecision is not lost on me, an irony that arises from the book’s central preoccupation: how does too much ‘freedom,’ or the demand to have ‘freedom’ (to make choices, mostly) ensure our collective and personal unhappiness? So I give you my reasons for enjoying the book and for feeling frustrated with it, and will pass to you the supposedly empowering, yet wholly unbearable, freedom to decide for yourself.
I appreciate Freedom for its unambiguous political position. The novel clearly sets out its agenda: capitalist, neo-liberal policies are destroying the planet and making people unhappy and unhappier. Though I found myself frustrated by how needlessly repetitive this message became as the wanton destruction caused by entitlement and greed frames the actions and relationships of each character and all of the plot. I’m all for thematic clarity, but such singular thematic focus is a bit… exhausting.
The male characters are compelling. Walter, Joey, and Richard make difficult choices, develop complex moral and intellectual positions, and change through their experiences and relationships. The male characters are rich and believable. The women? Not so much. Long deabte with M. about why/whether the gender of an author bears any relationship to their ability to write compelling characters of a different gender. General consensus at the end of the conversation is that it ought not to matter – there is nothing inherent about a genered experience that precludes imagining that experience – but that, in some novels, it does matter. And in Freedom the women are alternately flat and predictable (Connie and Jessica) or so underdeveloped that their decisions are surprising, their actions inexplicable, and their motivations wholly unknown (Patty). Patty’s character frustrated me the most, as a good part of the novel is her autobiographical voice, and yet despite her own portrayal of her life and her decisions she remains defined by one character trait – her competitiveness – that does little to explain her actions. It’s unclear whether Patty is a smart woman or not, whether she loves Walter at all (despite her earnest insistence that she does, nothing in her autobiography or actions suggest why she might love him, or evidence this love), what makes her a ‘good’ mother, or how she (didn’t) manage(d) the transition from star basketball player to suburban wife.
This last point on Patty’s transition recalls another difficulty I had with the novel: critical plot events take place in the gaps between chapters and the impact these events ought to have on characters are missing because they aren’t narrated. Lalitha’s death for instance, Patty’s injury, Joey’s conversion to democratic and ethical business practices… these events that we are told are crucial in our characters’s developments are absent, and so too are the character reactions; thus, the supposed changes the characters experience read as changes we are told about, rather than witnessing.
The best scenes are those that abandon the didactic tone and allow characters to behave ‘freely,’ and in so doing to announce to the reader their intentions and positions without unnecessary exposition: i.e. Walter’s hunting of the neighbourhood cats, Joey’s watch business, and Walter’s no smoking campaign.
Freedom successfully highlights the contradictions of a neo-liberal society, the dangers of living in communities that privilege the individual over the collective and protect and reward individual capital accumulation at the expense of the common and environmental good. Thematic questions aside, Freedom is a bit of a bust. Characters act for inexplicable reasons that require heavy-handed narration and overly repetitive symbolism (I’m inclined to think it’s 550 pages might easily have been cut to 300 without losing its political impact). Read it yourself; you’re free to decide.