Patty and Walter Berglund are staying frosty. Over the years, their love has advanced by the glacially slow accumulation of kindnesses and tolerance. They are helpful neighbors, listeners of NPR, tasteful house renovators. But their love had never burned all that hot to begin with. When their son Joey takes ownership of his teenage years by abandoning his liberal parents for the girl next door and her chainsaw Republican parents, well, the freeze sets in for good. Freedom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 576 pages, $28) takes over 500 pages to reach the thaw, but the characters are so full of capable, conflicted, real emotion (especially the women, most especially Patty) that it feels fleet.
Joey’s assertion of his independence, which is meant to stand in for our culture’s obsession with the liberties of youth, is the first specimen in Jonathan Franzen’s truly disturbing display case of American fetishes of freedom. As each member of the family drags the others through some contortion of asserting their individual selves, the nuclear center of their family begins to disintegrate. “Freedom from what?” is Franzen’s question. Family identity is one answer—the conundrum of being crippled by it, and adrift without it. Tying the events of the novel to the political and economic landscape of the early Bush years, another major subject is the freedom from responsibility. As Joey becomes entangled in a Halliburton-like defense procurement deal, selling failing truck parts to the government, he is faced with the brutality of the freedom to profit, and profit wildly, at the expense of others.
The book catapults its small raft of characters forward on the comically poor decisions and painful ramifications they inflict on each other. But no one is an island here—not in a family—and Franzen does us the mercy of giving flexibility and depth to each character. They make mistakes, they mature, they forgive—but he never demeans them by making them other than who they are. When Patty has an affair with Walter’s best friend; when Joey abandons his mother for his wife; when Joey’s sister Jessica abandons Walter because of his affair with an assistant; when Walter abandons his principles to enable mountaintop strip mining in West Virginia—they all, eventually, find a way back to each other. The inner lives of these characters are rich with the paradox of their reliance on one another. Franzen is such a keen observer that it will all feel remarkably familiar to you.
READ: Jonathan Franzen reads from Freedom at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Wednesday, Sept. 15. Free.