Freedom, Jonathan Franzen.

Returning to books you have loved is always fraught with tension. There is the possibility that the book was just of it’s time, or of that moment in your life, that it will have aged and a revisit will show it as being tired or sentimental or overwritten. Recently I reread For Whom the Bell Tolls after a gap of thirty-seven years, only to find it still as fresh and shocking as it was first time around. Franzen’s The Corrections, however, when I tried the same exercise, proved the thesis. The parts I had thought of as immensely clever and insightful in 2001 struck me as tedious and predictable. Was it the book or me? Had I simply not left it long enough? I’ll never know, but after picking it up in joyful anticipation I found the weight of it, the idea that I would have to work my way through all those different voices was just too much. I put it aside. Eventually it found it’s way back into the bookshelf.

I say this because the experience had not disposed me well towards his new novel, Freedom, the first in ten years. Within barely a paragraph, though, all that was forgotten. Five hundred and sixty pages later I was still with him. Here is a wonderfully rich novel, a deeply-felt, multi-layered meander through thirty years of a marriage.

The story opens as reportage, a variation of the omniscient author, criss-crossing the street where the Berglund’s live in Minneapolis-St Paul, the Twin Cities, dropping in and out of various households to get their opinion of the couple, Walter and Patty, who will prove to be the central characters. They are college graduates, Liberals, decent, ahead of their time in buying up an old home and doing it up. Walter is ‘greener than Greenpeace,’ remembered ‘for pedalling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow.’ Remembered because, as the first line attests things are already not so good with these two as once they were. This apparently objective opening perspective, while giving us a run-down of how things might have begun to fall apart, will not be returned to until the final pages.

We quickly see that Franzen is playing with perspective. He swings from one side of the street to the other only so he can drop, abruptly, into Patty’s voice in the second chapter, giving us almost a book within the book, a version of her life entitled ‘Mistakes Were Made.’ Except Patty, who is writing this at her therapist’s injunction, doesn’t want to use the first person to tell her story. Instead she writes about herself in the third, she discusses with us, the reader, the decisions being made by the autobiographer. When she hands over to another character Franzen adopts a more traditional mode of narrative, pulling the reader forward through several other characters; Walter, his friend Katz, his son Joey, introducing, as he does so, a massive cast of contemporary Americans, but at the same time always bringing the story back to the Berglund’s marriage. Towards the end Patty gets another go, and then, to finish, as I said, he steps back out towards the role of the dispassionate observer.

It’s a nice conceit, this moving in and pulling out, particularly the long tract in the first person told as third which allows the reader to sit alongside Patty as she tells her tale, a co-conspirator in her life. But, if there was a genuine complaint about The Corrections, it was that of the five voices which dominated the novel one of them was weaker than the rest and there was a moment, almost half way through Freedom (another big book) that I thought this was going to happen again. Franzen manages to carry it off this time, though, mainly because that character undergoes a change in himself, and with this change becomes more tolerable and interesting.

Franzen’s concerns are not just literary, though. He’s interested in discussing the nature of love, both long and short term and how it changes over time. He’s very good on the male attitude to sex at different ages, but I suspect, too, that of the female. Patty feels right. The Freedom of the title is not directly spoken about and yet it inhabits the novel, all of the characters have the capacity to make choices and they do so, and if there is a moral to the story it is, perhaps, that those who make the harder choices, even though they have a difficult time of it, also win out in the end. It is a portrait of a difficult marriage – is there any other kind? But also of a certain American class, beset not just by their own emotional problems but also by their concerns for what it means to be a human being in the present age. Franzen’s characters brush against major political issues and it is testament to his skill that they are important without being central to the novel. The paradoxes of our time are everywhere evident.

An excellent read.

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