Freedom: Jonathan Franzen

It is nine years since The Corrections ushered the Lambert family into the literary world. It was an extraordinary book that won Jonathan Franzen many awards and fans for its acute dissection of middle-class anxiety. The dysfunction that seemed to bedevil the Lamberts presaged the Bush era in the US, and all their distress about the gnawing gap between life’s promise and its underwhelming actuality could readily be assimilated as our own.

The Corrections was less a novel about dysfunction than it was about normality, and its genius lay in the realism Franzen applied to the daily exigencies of life. It was not so much a spotlight on the average as a coruscating exercise in elevating the mundane.

With his new book, Franzen treads similar ground. This time he brings us the Berglund family – Walter, Patty, and their two children – and Richard Katz, the Berglunds’ best friend dating back to college. The Berglunds are good people, inner-city gentrifiers who ride bicycles and do their own renovations. Patty was a college basketball star, tall and beautiful and possessed of an unflappably kind demeanor. Walter is an environmentalist extraordinaire and all-round good guy. He buys bibs for his neighbours’ cats so that they can’t kill native birds, takes care of his ageing parents who can barely stand him, and dotes on his wonderful wife. Where then – the question is posed on the very first page – did it all go wrong?

Let’s begin with Richard Katz. A narcissistic indie rock star, Richard drifts in and out of the Berglunds’ life, part stimulant, part toxin, and disrupts their routines in profound and disturbing ways. Richard’s lifestyle is the envy of both Walter and Patty, for complex and unresolved reasons, and when his influence is fully realised, the damage inflicted upon their relationship triangle can never be repaired. But Richard is simply the biggest axe trying to part this frozen sea. Patty is an emotional freak with her children: ‘… she loved her daughter (Jessica) an appropriate amount, but Joey she loved way too much’, and Walter has no empathy for his children’s struggles at all. Welcome to Franzen-world, where good people can be bad, environmentalists shake hands with coal miners, and too-sweet Patty can venture out late in the night to slash her Republican neighbour’s car tires.

Darker than The Corrections, Freedom is still a very funny book, as it peels away at the lives of its characters to reveal the slippery truths of life’s accommodations. The way Franzen deals with human issues great and small – rape, environmental devastation, extra-marital affairs, the intense stupidity of our race – renders these failures all the more acute.

What happens to the Berglunds, and to rock star Katz, is worth getting caught up in. They are so beautifully sketched, and Franzen juggles the hot coals of worthiness and entertainment with such acuity that I found myself longing to get to bed each night to continue reading. Franzen is a highly successful author, and Freedom confirms his place as a writer in complete control of his craft. It has been worth the nine-year wait.

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Jonathan Franzen

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