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Jonathan Franzen is in trouble again. You'll recall that back in 2001, Franzen made the misstep of expressing authorly ambivalence about the fact that his novel, The Corrections, might be mistaken for a "women's only" read since it had been chosen for Oprah's on-air book club. Soon enough, Oprah booted The Corrections off her syllabus and Franzen got the reputation in some circles of being a snoot.
Now all the hullabaloo over Franzen's long-awaited new novel, Freedom, is generating something of a feminist backlash. Why all this adulatory attention, critics ask, for Franzen's latest domestic drama about marriage and family? So many terrific contemporary female novelists cover the same terrain, yet their work receives a fraction of the highbrow fanfare that greets Franzen. It's like how men still get praised for doing housework and taking care of their own kids: Any male involvement in the domestic realm still merits applause.
All true. And, yet, even though Franzen gets more praise for doing what many fine female writers do "backwards and in heels," in the case of the blandly titled Freedom, it's well deserved. I heretically think Freedom is even more powerful than The Corrections, sections of which I found contrived. Freedom is looser and more revelatory and ambitious. It's the novel — by a man — along with novels by women like Allegra Goodman, Lionel Shriver, and the incandescent Sue Miller, that I'd elect to put in a time capsule to give a sense of the texture of middle-class American life to future readers. And, I sincerely hope that last phrase is not an oxymoron.
The husband and wife at the center of scrutiny in Freedom are Walter and Patty Berglund, who meet in college in the '70s. We know that Walter is in for a rough time when we're told at the outset that his "most salient quality, besides his love of Patty, was his niceness." Patty, in the opening paragraphs of the novel, is the reigning stay-at-home mom of her gentrified neighborhood of St. Paul, Minn. — a cooking and crafting queen. But a crack in Patty's chipper progressive Democratic veneer soon surfaces when we learn she's slashed the tires of a noisy Republican lout who lives next door.
Soon, all hell breaks loose as the Berglunds' adored teenage son, Joey, literally defects over the fence to live with the neighbor's vacant and sexually voracious daughter. Even worse, Joey will go on to work for shady civilian contractors supplying defective truck parts to the American forces in Iraq. And, then there's Walter's best friend from college, Richard Katz, an aging bad boy and lead singer of an indie band called The Traumatics. Richard turns up erratically in the Berglunds' life and, simply by his very existence, reminds Patty that, although she married Walter, she was only, at best, "somewhat more than sort of into him."
The unspooling of the Berglunds' marriage as they become more and more their destined selves is chronicled through a variety of perspectives, including a brutal, but often hilarious therapeutic memoir that Patty writes, titled "Mistakes Were Made." One of the great pleasures of reading Franzen's work is savoring how he turns personalities this way and that, so, for instance, from one angle Patty is a victim; from another she's a shrewish and controlling depressive. And, all interpretations are somewhat true. Even Richard, who could so easily have devolved into a rock'n'roll stereotype, is dense and surprising. Because he's a cynic, Richard is also the source of some of the sharpest takes on his friends and the world they live in. Midway through the novel, Richard achieves midlevel fame. Here are his thoughts about a young girl who won't stop bothering him:
She was like a walking advertisement of the late-model parenting she'd received: You have permission to ask for things! ... Your offerings, if you're bold enough to make them, will be welcomed by the world! ... [Richard] wondered if he'd been this tiring himself at eighteen, or whether, as it now seemed to him, his anger at the world — his perception of the world as a hostile adversary worthy of his anger — had made him more interesting than these young paragons of self-esteem.
There's not one throwaway scene in Freedom and, yet, for all that effort, nothing feels overwritten or false. Like The Corrections, Freedom celebrates and extends the possibilities of the good old realist novel — at a time when realism is out of fashion, even in autobiography. Franzen makes us skeptical post-moderns believe again, if only for a space, that literature really can and should hold a mirror up to the world.