I will not attempt to formally “review” Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as it justifiably has been thoroughly reviewed and highly praised since publication. But having recently read it, here is my opinion. It is a tour de force of our times covering the entire canvas of American culture, politics, and the forces that now shape our personal relationships and our society. It is stunningly and ingeniously written, with a fresh originality, a postmodern view of who we are and how we got here. In so doing, Franzen excoriates the worst aspects of American culture.
It is a story about the enmeshment of relationships, the extent to which we create our own hell (or heaven) having been dealt the hand of the families we are born into. Do we assume the roles of our parents or rebel against them? To what extent do we really have free will or become victims of abuse and misbehavior inflicted by prior generations? It is about competition and power, survival of the fittest, fathers vs. sons, almost echoing the Darwinian themes of Dreiser. It is about the conflict of personal freedoms and the need to protect the environment and control population growth. Will “the American bourgeoisie…voluntarily accept increasing restrictions on its personal freedoms”?
It is also a novel about a unique development in American life, new generations not having it better than previous ones, perhaps the consequence of having too many choices. As Franzen writes about the main character, Patty, “she was struck…by how much better off and more successful her parents were than any of their children, herself included.” Her mother cursed her husband’s genes “for her kids’ weirdness and ineffectuality.” At times the characters are “bludgeoned by depression,” another leitmotif of the novel and certainly characteristic of our Prozac plagued times.
I couldn’t help but think of Updike’s Rabbit novels, written about every ten years, capturing the Zeitgeist of each decade, and Franzen, now, encapsulating the state of the first decade of the millennium. There is also the eerie coincidence of Patty being a basketball star in her youth, like Rabbit Angstrom. In many respects, there is a decidedly Updikian feel to the novel.
The novel is a shot across the bow of a society that values the culture of American Idol and the worst aspects of capitalism more than the environment and intelligent political choices. At one point Patty’s son, Joey, wishes “there were some different world he could belong to, some simpler world in which a good life could be had at nobody else’s expense,” summing up the modern conundrum.
While it is a novel of social commentary, it is also a page-turner with memorable characters, ranking with the best in American literature. The writer who shared similar concerns in the early 20th century, Sinclair Lewis, said America is “the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring, of any land in the world today.” I think Franzen would agree.