One Bright Book of Life

One Bright Book of Life

For all its Great American ambitions,Freedom is a riveting domestic drama at heart.

It’s hard to write about a Jonathan Franzen novel without addressing the Jonathan Franzen legend. Many have anointed him the true legatee of Tolstoy and Dickens,a sign that the realist novel is still the “one bright book of life”,an exemplar of American literary ambition.

The other view considers him an Oprah-dissing crank,a middlebrow pretender,a man who gets unfair credit for writing about family and relationships when so many women who tackle the same stuff are dismissed for their diminutive concerns.

But reading Freedom,all that falls away,as you are steadily drawn deeper into the lives of Patty and Walter Berglund,their sticky web of family and friendship. It is divided into several sections — the first tells of how the Berglunds are seen by their neighbours in Ramsey Hill,a gentrifying suburb in Minnesota. The public-radio-loving,zinfandel-drinking Patty is “a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen” from the East,who will not use an epithet worse than “weird.” Walter is the liberal,conscientious husband and father,Joey and Jessica the perfect kids.

But those public facades soon disintegrate as the teenage Joey moves out of home to live with the neighbours,and Patty collapses into depression and drink. Then the novel moves into Patty’s “autobiography”,written at the suggestion of her therapist: her youthful traumas,her jockiness,and in college,her fatally mixed-up feelings for the morally unimpeachable Walter and his roommate,the streetwise,guitar-playing Richard Katz.


Walter is worthiness itself (as is insistently mentioned by several characters). Thoughtful,gentle,he makes Patty believe in the best version of herself — “the first time a person had ever looked through her jock exterior and found lights on inside”. Richard Katz,meanwhile,has the louche glamour of a teenage Qaddafi,and treats women with contempt. Patty,naturally,falls violently for Richard,only to realise that a more sedate and lasting happiness lies with Walter. Later,in middle age,she regards the two of them with serene satisfaction: “the great guy she’d married,the sexy one she hadn’t.” But the novel fails to add more texture and dimension to these two men,this accountant/rocker schema of masculinity. Even when they speak in their own voices later,Walter and Richard are only what James Wood once called “vivid blots of typology.”

The most interesting inner life belongs to Joey,Patty’s preternaturally cool son. To anyone observing him,and to his needy mother,he is perfect and perfectly heartless — “the world had given unto him,and he was fine with taking.” But Joey can spring a few surprises,whether it is the deep wells of feeling for his unlikely girlfriend or his clear will to power,which puts him politically at odds with his father.

Jonathan Franzen is considered a master of the “social novel”,one that wants to gather up the contemporary world,no less,between its covers. From the rolling of political seasons to cultural reverberations,he crams it all in — there are references to Volvo 240s,Whole Foods,Lewinsky,bin Laden,even Tina Fey and Sarah Silverman. But he is not as high-concept as Don DeLillo,with whom he is often compared,and he doesn’t preen at the sentence level. He writes to get on with the story,though it’s sometimes hard to tell if he’s just affecting a Minnesotan housewife’s trite turn of phrase. Too much of the novel’s girth comes from boring,distended passages where Walter bangs on about overpopulation or Richard about rock and inauthenticity.

But there’s also great virtuosity,and some wonderfully funny bits — like when Richard suddenly finds himself certified by NPR and nominated for a Grammy. “Grim situations were Katz’s niche the way murky water was a carp’s. His best years with the Traumatics had coincided with Reagan I,Reagan II,and Bush I…now came Bush II,the worst regime of all,and he might well have started making music again,had it not been for the accident of success”. Or when Joey idly ponders how the acronym MILF sounds fairly cretinous for its omission of the T for “to”. The tone of telling fits perfectly with their casts of mind — Joey’s teenage self-possession,Richard’s salty and disaffected style.

The novel creaks heavily with its own weight towards the end,when Walter somehow ends up embroiled in a scheme to despoil mountains and displace poor white people,while in the employ of a Bush and Cheney crony. His social commitment has become cartoonish,as he hectors on about the ills of overpopulation and the need to preserve the cerulean warbler. Meanwhile,he is torn between his withholding wife,Patty,and a sexy,submissive young Indian-American woman named Lalitha. Lalitha’s torrential love for middle-aged,worthy Walter is pretty unbelievable —she’s just a convenient plot-propellor for the domestic drama between Patty,Walter and Richard.

And that is interesting enough to make Freedom immensely worthwhile. It’s not the laboured Great American themes or the surfeit of contemporary detail that makes Franzen so wonderful — it’s emotional acuity. Patty’s self-abasing,clutching love for Richard is painfully real,as is her constricted idea of her husband. It is about the currents coursing between lifelong relationships,not about historic events — what Joey thinks of Patty,what Patty thinks of Walter,what Walter thinks of Richard,and so on. A novel of angled mirrors,Freedom’s final effect is dazzling.