An Obligatory Review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

Do you know about the Oedipal complex? That Freudian thing? Of course you do. But if for some reason you don’t, or need a refresher, here’s a quick summary from one of my all time favorite lyricists, David Byrne: “Mom and Pop / They will fuck you up / For sure.”  That joyful nugget is from one of the last songs Talking Heads recorded, “Sax and Violins,” a great little piece on modern life that is far more entertaining (and much shorter) than Jonathan Franzen’s over-hyped new novel Freedom.

Freedom works hard to prove that Mom and Pop will fuck you up. Your family will fuck you up. Then you will fuck up your own kids. Franzen’s (boring, oh my god are they boring) characters seem bound to play out repeated variations of the Oedipal complex. Furthermore, according to Freedom, our extra-familial relationships are merely substitutions or recapitulations of our own Oedipal family dramas. Even worse, Franzen seems to suggest in Freedom that all our ideologies, our passions, our beliefs are really just formed by our “morbidly competitive” impulses, impulses born in our fucked-up, Oedipal families. (“Morbidly competitive,” by the way, is Franzen’s term).

The novel centers on one family, the Berglunds, a perfectly normal (in the upper-middle-class-white-educated sense of “perfectly normal”) fucked up family of four. I’m dispassionate about this novel, so I’ll just lazily crib a short summary from a well-written piece I’m largely simpatico with, Ruth Franklin’s review at TNR

Freedom takes place over a period of about thirty years, but its primary focus is on the George W. Bush era. When it begins, Patty and Walter Berglund, college sweethearts, are among the first wave of urban pioneers putting the gentry back into gentrification, fixing up a house in a blighted area of St. Paul that they will soon populate with their two children. The short preamble offers an overview of their lives from the perspective of their neighbors, from the time they move in as a young couple to their departure around the time the children leave for college. Patty, a former college basketball star who once made “second-team all-American,” is a mother and housewife in the newly popular liberal model: “tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles and barfed-upon old snow. . . . Ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel.” She bakes cookies for the neighbors on their birthdays and opens her house to their children. But Patty’s baking and mothering cannot keep her home together: her son Joey, while still in high school, moves out to live down the street with his girlfriend Connie and her family, which happens to include the only Republican on the block. The strain that their child’s defection places on the Berglunds’ marriage is obvious to all. When they leave in the early 2000s for Washington, where Walter has a new job doing something vaguely ominous involving the coal industry, one of the neighbors remarks, “I don’t think they’ve figured out yet how to live.”

This overture sets the stage for the rest of the book, which begins and more or less ends with a ridiculously well-written journal by Patty. Patty (who is somehow a  more-than-competent novelist despite having no training) allows the audience to witness her marriage crumbling from her perspective; we are also supposed to sympathize with her because her own childhood was fucked up by her family. Also, she was date-raped, a manipulative detail that adds little to the narrative (I’d call it Nice Writing at its worst). Patty’s seemingly interminable journal eventually gives way to shorter chapters focusing on Joey and Walter. There’s also Patty and Walter’s lifelong friend, ex-punk/would-be indie rock star Richard Katz. Much of the novel revolves around Patty’s desire for Richard and Walter’s desire for Richard (no homo) and Richard’s desire for what he thinks Walter and Patty have and Walter’s desire to be desired by Patty the way that Patty desires Richard and blah blah blah. It’s one big boring circle of “morbidly competitive” Oedipal tension. Franzen spends most of his time expounding on how each character feels about how another character feels about him or her in an endless solipsistic chain that fails to enlighten or even amuse. Too much telling, not enough showing.

Freedom threatens to become interesting when it picks up the Walter narrative. Walter, a die-hard environmentalist oozing oodles of liberal guilt, is hard at work with a bevy of über-Republicans and defense contractors and Texas oil men to save the planet. Via the novel’s ever-present free indirect style, Walter goes to great, finicky pains to explain how working with these creeps will actually, like, save the ecosystem. Hey, doesn’t “eco” come from the Greek “oikos,” meaning “house”? Why yes it does! Must be some kind of parallel there–save the planet, save your house, save your fucked up family . . . Only none of that pans out; instead the section gets bogged down in a cluster of details that mingle with Walter’s increasing attraction (no, deep love and lust) for his twenty-something assistant. Meanwhile, his son Joey is growing up all wrong and fucked up, falling in with neocons who hide their war profiteering in a cloak of patriotic ideology. The democratic freedom we think we cherish is a lie; the personal freedoms we struggle to obtain–by escaping our fucked-up families–is ultimately a damning, soul-devouring curse. The American Dream is just morbid competitiveness.

If Franzen intended to write a zeitgeist novel, a How We Live Now novel, I wonder if this is this really what he thinks the spirit of our age boils down to? He gets many of the details of the last decade right, but the prose is bloodless and the characters are dull, unlikable, and unsympathetic. Of course, real people can be dull, unlikable, and unsympathetic, but that usually means that we don’t want to hang out with them, let alone read about their fears and desires for almost 600 pages. If our own families are dull, at least they are usually likable and sympathetic–at least to us, anyway (I love and like my family, in any case). Freedom feels like a novel with nothing at stake, or, perhaps, a novel where everything has already been lost, where outcomes are drawn null and void from the outset. And really, I wouldn’t mind all of that if it wasn’t so tedious. It practically buckles under its own sense of weighted importance in trying to reveal how Oedipal tension underwrites ideology. Oedipus might have been fated from the get-go, but at least there was some action and excitement in his story–some level of heroism, anyway.  And because I’ve brought up Oedipus again, I’ll indulge myself and cite Talking Heads one more time.

In “Once in a Lifetime,” probably the group’s most famous song, Byrne sings, “You may ask yourself / Well, how did I get here?” The song’s narrator wonders if he can escape time, wonders if his suburban confine is a trap or a paradise; there’s a sense of sublime ridiculousness  to it all, as if he might transcend time and space and contemporary life and take off “Into the blue again /Into silent water.” He’s trying to navigate the weird gap between suburbia and ecology, between duty and freedom. It is a song that at once recognizes the existential despair of a modern, suburban life, comments on its absurdity, and then surpasses it heroically. The song is undeniably about a figure in crisis, but that figure decides that “Time isn’t holding us / Time isn’t after us.” That figure is freer than the characters in Freedom, and freer still in his weird warp of ambiguity (a warp concretely codified in Byrne’s bizarre dance in the video). The hero of “Once in a Lifetime” transmutes existential absurdity into sound and vision; Oedipus saves his country (and provides the audience with catharsis) via his ironic, tragic self-mutilation; Patty and Walter kiss and make up. It’s a dreadfully facile ending, the worst kind of wish-fulfillment that seems wholly unsupported by the narrative preceding it.

But perhaps this is an unfair way to review a book that is apparently so important–to compare it to Oedipus Rex and a few Talking Heads songs. And I’ll admit that if Freedom had not been so wildly over-praised in the past few months, I’d probably try to find something positive to say about it. So I’ll try: Franzen is deeply intelligent, even wise, and his analysis of the past decade is perhaps brilliant. It’s also incredibly easy to read, but this is mostly because it requires so little thought from the reader. Franzen has done all the thinking for you. The book has a clear vision, a mission even, but it lacks urgency and immediacy; it is flaccid, flabby, overlong. It moans where it should howl. Nevertheless, the book is not a failure, at least not on its own terms. I believe that Franzen has written the book that he intended to write, that he has documented the zeitgeist the way that he perceives it–I just happen to find his analysis dull and his characters irredeemably uninteresting. Do not feel obligated to read Freedom.

15 thoughts on “An Obligatory Review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom”

  1. I agree with much of this review, but I have a question about one thing. You mention the characters aren’t likable. Do characters have to be?

    On the narration of the piece, I totally agree. I think that’s part of the problem with the issues of the characters. Lucas and Wood point out that one might learn to value unlikable characters by understanding what drives them or pushes them to do certain things. However, Franzen’s narration detracts from this because it’s his opinions and feelings about the characters that we’re getting more so than what’s going on in their own heads.

    Andrew Seal and Ron Charles have pointed out the way Franzen uses the words ‘freedom’ and ‘free’ repeatedly. I think there’s something to that.


  2. Hi, DL–
    Thanks for the link. I read Lucas’s piece and I’ll use some of his examples in response.

    I like Iago. I like Humbert Humbert. They are fascinating, twisted characters, and I love to hear them, to inhabit their consciousnesses for a while. I recently read Lipsyte’s The Ask, whose narrator is kinda sorta horrible, but, again, I loved him.

    I suppose, as a clarification goes, “like” in my review means “willing to continue to listen to” or “willing to endure. I just found Franzen’s characters boring, which is always a weak criticism, but it’s also honest. I don’t even mind that most of the time they were just essentially mouthpieces for his own riffs or arguments (okay, I do mind–that’s why I hated Lethem’s last novel, Chronic City) . . . it was all just so boring and weak and watery. Harold Bloom, who might be a curmudgeon, writes frequently about the aesthetic transcendence of certain literature, which can easily be determined: do you want to re-read it? Are you compelled to re-read it? I honestly can’t imagine anyone wanting to re-read this novel, let alone in 15 years.


  3. Good points all around. I found reading Freedom to be like watching television.
    Episodic, mind-numbing, a lot of people yelling at each other or arguing, none of whom I cared much about. Not to mention that I found the friendship between Patty and Eliza to be completely absurd and unlikely. Ditto, in many ways, the Patty attraction to Richard Katz.

    In some ways I feel bad for Franzen. Sure, it’s a big payday. But all the silly hype over this book (including that gushing front page New York Times Book Review piece by the Book Review’s editor and the story of how Obama got a copy of the book while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard in advance of the book’s release) ensured that it would be subjected to exacting reviews, perhaps overly-critical reviews (did you read B.R. Myers’ take?

    On another note – I tried reading Lethem’s Chronic City but could only get about 60 pages in. I found myself saying “so what? who cares?”


    1. I read Myers’s piece…I hate that guy! I’ve hated him since his review of Tree of Smoke. He seems to pretty much hate all contemporary fiction. I thought his review of Freedom was spot on in places, but I don’t see why he uses Don DeLillo as a whipping boy! He wrote this terrible book called A Reader’s Manifesto where he whines about new novels…

      Yeah, Chronic City was a bore: same problem as Freedom, too–most of the characters are just mouthpieces for the author. And it was really boring–seemed like Lethem just wanted to write an essay on pop culture and didn’t know how to organize it, so he used a novel instead. Really, I’m starting to think Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude might be it for the guy unless he does something new…Chronic City and You Don’t Love Me Yet were so bad that I have no interest in reading him again.


      1. I agree with you on Myers, what a crank. Indeed, his continual harshing out on DeLillo baffles me as well. Underworld was one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read.

        Cheers, then, ’til the next comment.


  4. Someone sent me Freedom as a Christmas gift and I read it because at first glance it seemed to be well written at least. I eventually came to the same conclusion as the reviewer, that none of the characters are likable and that the book is overly long. So I also wonder why this book has been so highly praised. Isn’t at least one of the characters in a novel supposed to be appealing or interesting in some way?
    Your review is very well written. Who wrote it?


  5. Thanks for a really great review, I must admit I’m still torn on it ( Your point about the novel being flabby really strikes a chord for me, I think you’re absolutely right. Outside of poetic prose, great writers are incisive. Franzen certainly isn’t that.


  6. I think Franzen is a great writer but not much of an artist. By which I mean in terms of sentence by sentence craft, he can be astounding. But there is no love, no exuberance, no passion anywhere in his vision. And with rare moments as exceptions, Franzen’s attitude toward his characters is aloof contempt. He’s the Updike of his generation. Which is only half a compliment.


    1. I think “aloof contempt” is spot on; he also seems to point that aloof contempt at his audience. The Updike comparison might be apt, but at least Updike was an excellent book critic (in my estimation); Franzen is not. His piece on Gaddis is the dumbest shit ever.


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