First Impressions: Freedom by Jonathan Frazen

The characters in Freedom are educated and aware, introspective and thoughtful. The pleasure of reading about them is similar to that of hanging out with people who you have a lot in common with but who are just a bit older. You see in their struggles and their wanderings some of what your own future might hold in store. But you have the advantage of these forebears making mistakes you can be sure to avoid. Walter Berglund devotes his time and his thinking to conservation and getting out the message that overpopulation endangers everything we hold dear. Meanwhile, Richard Katz can’t manage any such lofty ideals and so goes about his life playing rock shows—at least until he and his band actually become successful, at which point music loses its luster—and fucking women young and old alike, as much out of contempt as lust. Then there’s Patty Berglund, who was prescient enough to marry Walter, but human enough to pine for a good fucking by Richard. At the beginning, Richard seems to possess a distanced wisdom, Walter seems absentminded and sexually clueless, and Patty comes across as a basket case. But Richard comes to seem more and more pathetic compared to Walter, who I for one found myself rooting for even though what I was rooting for most was for him to drop his feminist compunctions and throw some woman down to have his way with her. The dilemma at the heart of this triangle is that freedom—the freedom to choose a life, a mate, a purpose—is not the unqualified boon that Americans tend to make it out to be. An abundance of freedom can be its own form of oppression.

Each of characters is eminently sympathetic, even the rock star who gets laid all the time but feels he can’t compete with his passive-aggressively nice environmental lawyer friend. Most charming of all is the way their bemoaning of young people’s self-absorption betrays their own. All Patty can think of is her own unmet womanly needs. Richard’s cynicism serves as a warrant for his parasitism. And even Walter, so obsessed with the world’s population, wrestles with his intense desire to have a third child. They’re the type of intensely wrought characters in a dense novel that you find yourself inadvertently analyzing in the wakeful hours of the late night and early morning. It is the tendency of fiction to exaggerate the individual differences between people. And if I have one criticism of Franzen’s work it’s that his characters are too perfectly defined by their individual tragic flaw and too perfectly complementary in how their personalities conflict with one another. People surely do contrast themselves with siblings and college roommates, embrace and heighten the differences for a pleasing sense of individuality, and seek to prove the superiority of their chosen ways. But it is not only possible, I’d wager, but completely natural for those niches and those rivalries to dissolve over time and with distance. Identity is more a matter of narratives told by others about us, or by us about ourselves, than it is of fixed boundaries between personalities.

Franzen does give a nod to this wrinkle in conventional notions authenticity, most intriguingly when he has Richard witness a younger musician “performing authenticity.” If we can perform ourselves, if it’s an act of will and one designed to entertain, seduce, or market, what does that mean about identity—especially when the performance really is genuinely our own? So far, Freedom hasn’t done much more than bring up the question even as the characters overwhelm the disturbing ramifications by being so consistently and frustratingly themselves.

Upon finishing: By page 561, I found myself bracing for a slog every time I picked up the book. Not everyone can be Saul Bellow, but Franzen's prose is excessively weighted with an unshakeable tone of resignation--this is how it happened, this is how things are, and so this is how the story must be told. The characters, for the most part, develop in gratifying ways. But there is a sameness that takes hold about half way through the novel that becomes as oppressive as the character's freedom to embrace their tragic flaws.