Thursday, February 21, 2013


by Jonathan Franzen

Is freedom, as Kris Kristofferson wrote and Janis Joplin sang, just another word for nothing left to lose?   Or is it something else entirely?  When marketing his proposal for this novel in 2007, Jonathan Franzen explained the title in a radio interview with writer and DJ, Dave Haslam, on October 3, 2010:

The reason I slapped the word [Freedom] on the book proposal I sold three years ago without any clear idea of what kind of book it was going to be is that I wanted to write a book that would free me in some way. And I will say this about the abstract concept of 'freedom';  it's possible you are freer if you accept what you are and just get on with being the person you are, than if you maintain this kind of uncommitted I'm free-to-be-this, free-to-be-that, faux freedom.

Trying to define freedom is a bit like describing water:  it can be clear or murky;  it gives life but harbors pathogens;  it is soft unless it gets too cold; when it’s too hot, it kills living tissue;  we cannot survive without it, but it can and does, sometimes, kill us.  The main difference between water and freedom is that we experience the physical properties of water whereas freedom, as Jonathan Franzen states, is an abstract concept.  Sometimes the only way to understand it is in a negative way, that is to be freed from some sort of restriction or bondage.  On the other hand, another way to think of freedom is in positive terms, such as being able to say what we think or to own 387 guns.  Freedom, to Americans, is a heavily loaded term because King George III was a greedy tyrant who made life unbearable for many colonists.  When free of him, the United States of America was free to realize its potential as a nation.  We worship freedom and go to war to defend it, even when we aren’t exactly sure what it means.

American slaves understood that freedom was far from perfect.  Once liberated from slavery, four million African Americans had to find a way to live in a country which to a great extent wished they would go away.  Nearly a century later, segregation still kept their descendents trapped in poverty.  Despite the election of an African American president in 2008 and his re-election in 2012, there remains a subtle vein of racial prejudice in America which means that none of us is yet completely free from our ugly past.

The notion of freedom pervades American culture.  Each of the characters in  Freedom is trapped by circumstance, personality, and choice.  How each becomes free allows the author to examine the many ways in which “freedom” is more myth than reality, more evanescent than static.  This highly literate and thought-provoking novel spans the early 1980s through the end of the second Bush Administration, a period of dawning awareness of how small the earth is, of dizzying technological evolution, and of self-destructive dissatisfaction with the government that was created in order to free us from oppression.

Walter and Patti Berglund are an upwardly mobile couple who met in college and married in the early 1980s.  They are young, hip, and liberal and determined to transcend their families of origin.  To that end, they have taken on a set of values intended to make the world a better place, but which serve only to make them paralyzed by internal conflicts.  Take diapers, for example.  Disposable diapers pile up in landfills which leach toxins into ground water.  Cloth diapers, on the other hand, need to be washed in hot water and bleach.  Neither choice is environmentally benign.  Biodegradable paper bags or recyclable plastic?  Fuel-efficient, but cramped, sedan; or gas-guzzling, but comfortable, SUV?   Expensive organic or affordable commercially farmed produce?  The Walter and Patti Berglunds of that era struggled mightily with these and other dilemmas.  Walter visualized a world in balance but recognized that overpopulation was sending humanity off a cliff to certain ruin.  Global warming had yet to be identified, but thinking people knew the end was near, if not from toxic waste, then from some other man-made catastrophe.

In college, Patti and Walter were both in love with (although in different ways) the same man, a rock musician named Richard Katz who was also Walter’s roommate.  Patti dreamed of a romantic relationship with Richard while Walter’s feelings were more narcissistic because he hoped that by being Richard’s best friend some of Richard’s hipness would transfer to him.  Richard, in spite of looking like Moammar Khadafi, had a constant stream of girlfriends flowing through his life while Walter only had eyes for Richard-obsessed Patti.  This love triangle exists for most of the book because Patti cannot let go of her feelings for Richard until she eventually learns to appreciate herself. 

Patti and Walter are emblematic of a certain demographic  of young professionals coming of age in the 1980s.  After “white flight” had emptied St. Paul, Minnesota’s residential neighborhoods in the 1960s and ‘70s, the Berglunds are among the earliest of urban pioneers to buy an inner city house and renovate it.  Crime is an on-going problem which they choose to ignore in order to stand by their decision to gentrify the inner city.  Their chosen lifestyle requires a high level of cognitive dissonance and this is both a function and a cause of their fundamental inability to cope with life.

Patti does her best to be a perfect wife and mother but is defeated by her underlying neuroses.  Her vision of the neighborhood’s rebirth, by virtue of the gorgeous renovation she and Walter undertaking, does not impress her neighbor who fells every tree on his property in order to make room for boat storage.  When a vandal slashes the tires of this neighbor’s pick-up truck, everyone assumes that Patti did it because of how unhinged she is becoming, although Patti swears she is innocent.  As parents, Patti and Walter are completely dysfunctional and their son, upset by how ineffective they are, defies them at every opportunity.  When adolescent Joey moves in with his teenage sweetheart, effectively disowning his family, Patti and Walter’s marriage deteriorates further and Patti takes to drinking.

Because Walter is too nice to be a lawyer, his employer – a large multi-national corporation and major producer of toxic waste – warehouses him in their social outreach function where he finds he has too much time on his hands.  His growing awareness of overpopulation becomes an obsession and this obsession leads to a job in Washington, DC, with a nature conservation organization which provides the family with a townhouse in Georgetown.  Walter’s increasing drive to save a small piece of earth from the tide of overpopulation by any means necessary leads him to make a deal with the devil, the president of a coal mining company who is one of the conservancy’s sponsors.  Like many opposing organizations in Washington, the conservancy and the coal industry use each other to further their respective agendas.  The coal company plans to decapitate a mountain range in West Virginia in order to extract carbon dioxide producing coal, but supports the conservancy as a way of proving its environmental bona fides.  The conservancy, under Walter’s leadership, arranges for one of the flattened mountain tops to be rehabilitated into a bird sanctuary after the damage is done.  Walter’s ability to sell the mountain top removal project to the local residents, who will all be paid to move, gives him access to some unaccountable funds which he siphons off to fund his overpopulation initiative.  His ally in both projects is a beautiful young Indian woman named Lalitha whom the conservancy has housed on the third floor of Walter and Patti's townhouse, and who is infatuated with Walter.

Rather than admit that the marriage is over, Patti takes a job working at a gym and through exercise begins to feel better about herself.  She gets into counseling and her therapist suggests that she write her autobiography, which she does in the third person.  It turns out that Patti is carrying some very heavy emotional baggage that feeds her insecurity, which she has habitually masked by making self-deprecating remarks of the sort that hint at superiority.  Her unresolved feelings about Richard Katz are a symptom of this and she subconsciously creates a situation which brings them together.  Despite his seeming disdain for marriage, Richard envies his two best friends and idealizes them until Patti breaks through that illusion.  Richard gets even for this treachery in a deeply twisted and passive-aggressive way and the three friends separate for a time.

With Patti out of the way, Walter and Lalitha begin an affair, convincing themselves that the coal company’s plan to ruin a mountain range and valley in exchange for creating a bird sanctuary on a soon-to-be plateau is actually a sensible environmental project, because it enables them to work on overpopulation, which if not halted will lead to an environmental cataclysm.  The projects and the affair end badly and Walter retreats to the lakeside cabin once owned by his parents, where he declares war on the neighbors’ cats which exterminate the migrating songbirds that visit his feeders.  He becomes a bitter recluse until Patti shows up and the two slowly and painfully reconcile.

Patti’s and Walter’s attempts to reinvent themselves, when free of each other, left each imprisoned by her and his choices.  It is only when they make peace with their families of origin, with themselves, and finally with each other that they realize they are free to love each other.  In the words of Andr√© Gide, “To know how to free oneself is nothing; the arduous thing is to know what to do with one's freedom.”  Or, as Katherine Anne Porter wrote, “Freedom is a dangerous intoxicant and very few people can tolerate it in any quantity.”

Copyright 2013 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved

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