by Jonathan Franzen
Critical voices have asked where the angry writers are; where are the writers who challenge our comforts and understanding? Where are the social novels? Where are the writers that roar? With his new novel Freedom, Jonathan Franzen gives an excellent answer.
With moral intelligence and surprisingly ribald wit Freedom’s characters ask us what liberty is. His characters are our limited and contradictory ideas of freedom. They play out the consequences of liberty, its realities and illusions. Franzen’s characterizations breathe detail and reality into his protagonists: Richard, a sardonic rock-god, self-indulgently railing against societal norms. Walter Berglund, the very personification of meliorism, confounded by his high ideals, is crippled by his inability to express the love or anger that fill him. And Walter’s wife, Patty, a self-loathing, ex-athlete who doubts the validity and merit of her life; the Autobiographer, able to see the harm she does yet incapable of stemming the love that drives her harm. If the other characters are the currents of the novel, Patty is the body of water they run through. Patty expresses the constraints and expressions of freedom; all its complexity, damnation and beauty. Patty, and the extended Berglund family, is testament to the moments of perfect horror and beauty that make a life; moments emblazoned on personalities so deeply they can be passed through generations and societies like DNA.
So, where have all the social novels gone? Who is it that’s roaring? Freedom is a great social novel – it is brilliant. But Franzen doesn’t roar – he places his hand gently on your left shoulder while whispering, calmly and kindly, in your left ear. Until all you can see is the reality he describes. The novel is life bound in paper sheaths; an idea explored in a narrative of warmth and great intelligence, carried forward by characters of depth and profound flaw. It is an all consuming narrative about how to live.