The Political and the Personal: Thoughts on Freedom

(I selected Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as my airplane reading for this latest conference and now feel compelled to write a post about it.  There will be spoilers.  You’ve been warned.)

In my more depressive moments, I used think of myself as sort of a glum, anti-social misanthrope with a penchant for stewing overlong in my own neurotic juices.  Apparently I was wrong.  Compared to many of the characters and, well, the whole narrative perspective of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, I am a happy-go-lucky Pollyanna living a blissfully unexamined life.  This novel, to put it succinctly, made me  feel better and worse about everything.  Yes, my life, my family, and my marriage are pretty awesome compared to those of the people I’ve just spend a week reading about, but that probably means I’m shallow.  Yes, I do, in fact, enjoy periods of contentment and happiness, but probably only because I do not sufficiently reflect upon the dire environmental impact of my very existence.

Ok, I’m projecting a lot here, and I sort of wonder if the novel does that to many of its readers.  In its bleak and relentless examination of the vicissitudes of white liberal upper middle class existence, it dredged some of my neuroses (my fear of being perceived–as a short, blond woman who likes shoes–as shallow and unserious) along with that part of me that insists that no, there is good in people, that things will work out in the end.  Freedom is as misanthropic a novel as I have ever read.  Its moral seems to be that everybody sucks, everyone is complicit, (though as I will discuss in more detail, the scope of that “everybody” is somewhat narrow).  In other words, it announces itself as one of those novels that bravely refuses to take moral stands about how we should live (except when it sort of does) and lets us just wallow in the messy complexity of it all.

But in the end, I don’t really buy it. Yes, there is plenty of rich complexity here, plenty of shades and layers to each of the major characters, but none of that complexity is left remotely mysterious here.  Consider, for example, the cudgel-like irony of Walter’s job in the middle section of the novel.  Mired in familial muck–estranged from his conservative, willful son, not yet aware of his wife’s infidelity even though its telegraphed through her guilty, self-destructive bout with mental illness–Walter Berglund seeks refuge from his family in his work for the Cerulean Mountain Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving land for a bird species that might one day become endangered.  His efforts on behalf of the cerulean warbler mimic his futile attempts to salvage his marriage, enterprises that are doomed by his willingness to cross moral lines and a ferocious paternalistic rage toward the people affected by his efforts.  In saving this one bird species, Walter allies himself with oil magnates, hunting pals of Dick Cheney, surrenders huge swaths of West Virginian mountain range for strip-mining via mountain-top removal, forcibly relocates two-hundred poor people from their ancestral lands and sends them to work for defense contractors.

As if this cruel irony weren’t enough, Walter’s environmentalism and anti-population growth activism prove to be part of a generations-old familial psychodrama that boils down to the following:  Walter grew up among poor people and now Walter hates poor people because they are so polluting and messy and gross and have too many kids because of religion.  Also women, but we’ll get to that in a sec.   In Franzen’s absolutely relentless, often clinical deconstruction of not just his characters and their relationships–a troubled marriage, troubled parent-child relationships, and two love triangles at the novel’s center–but the political ramifications of everything these people do, he almost seems to be resisting a symptomatic reading.  His desire is to expose, not to be exposed, to in some way totally expunge ideology from this novel by revealing ideology and all of its attendant political commitments to be the product of Oedipal drama.

Yet there clearly is ideology at the heart of this novel.  Despite Walter’s inner nastiness–a “nice” man whose niceness conceals a seething core of misanthropic rage–we are clearly supposed to walk away with a message about sustainability and the impact of our middle class existences on the environment.  We are supposed to care about Walter’s birds and the fact that Walter feels deep psychic pain on their behalf.  But even more than that, Freedom is committed to a whole ideology of non-violent political correctness that demands that we dissect every idea, every action for its political content and ramifications,  that we endeavor to examine and root out privilege from every aspect of our lives.  It is in this way that I think Franzen documents a very specific brand of white middle class liberalism of the past decade most accurately.  As Walter considers beginning his own affair with his beautiful young Indian assistant, he ponders the patriarchal and imperialistic overtones such a relationship might have.  Or, I might say, Franzen’s free indirect discourse examines those things for him.

Yeah, the prose is sort of a problem.  Through free indirect discourse, Franzen attempts to lay bear the interiority of each of his tortured characters but with such a clinical precision that it almost feels unreal.  Yes, I know many neurotic white liberals who really do the kinds of contortions that Walter does in the previous paragraph, rooting out the politics of their very feelings.  I sometimes find myself doing this, trying to figure out if my feelings about my gay uncle are sufficiently progressive, sometimes at the expense of allowing feelings to just be feelings, anger to be anger, and just sit with the fact that sometimes I feel ways that I shouldn’t feel because I’m a work in progress and human relationships are messy.  That relentless sort of self-examination is exhausting, and spending an entire novel with a narrator who does this on behalf of the players in his drama is not only exhausting but alienating.  We spend an entire third of the novel reading the autobiography of Patty Berglund (estranged wife of Walter), an autobiography that, for some strange reason, has to be told in the third person, that uses the same free indirect discourse as the rest of the novel.  The writer of this autobiography is so psychologically sophisticated, so self-aware and adept at accurately describing the inner make-up of the people closest to her, so capable of stating with absolute precision the mistakes she made with her children that the autobiographical conceit falls apart.  The person who writes the autobiography is so virtuous and generous in thought, so right about everything and so similar in style and diction to the narrator of the rest of the novel that the character of Patty Berglund–a character who is quite simply a hot mess at every other point in the narrative–strains the bounds of credibility.

To summarize my meandering critique thus far, this is a novel that refuses to allow its characters any real ideological blind spots that can’t be unveiled by an epiphany by the end of the book.  Joey–the Berglund’s son who winds up working for a Halliburton-esque operation right out of college and who strings along his obsessively over-attached high school girlfriend hoping to score some choicer tail in his early twenties–only wanders in the moral wilderness for a few chapters before realizing that his politics and his attitudes toward women are all just an extension of his adolescent rebellion against his father.  Then everything is just sort of ok with him.  The sadistic element in his relationship with Connie is just sort of gone and their problematic marriage sanctified because he gave up his dirty war profiteer money.  It’s a little too easy and yet manages to be excruciatingly painful to read.

This sort of PC-ness tries to masquerade as a kind of non-ideology.  As long as these characters maintain or discover the right sort of politics, everything is ok.  Walter’s love of birds, his staunch environmentalism, is supposed to make him lovable.  Joey’s decision to forsake filthy lucre and pursue a fortune in eco-friendly designer coffee is supposed to endear him to us.  At least I think.  You may have heard that this book is even-handed toward conservatives, but that’s just false.  Yes, liberals are morally compromised and complicit, but conservatives, in this novel, are mustache twirling cartoon villains who merely look at their neighbors’ Obama bumper sticker and think (ok, the narrator thinks for her) that this person is in league with the devil or who blithely sell sub-standard equipment to the DoD for pure profit.  Yeah, those caricatures are grounded in a certain amount of truth, but…

I just sort of wonder if this novel’s enshrinement such unobjectionable liberal values as peace and sustainability as well as its commitment to such brutal dissections of its characters dirty psyches, is designed to sort of protect it from the most obvious bit of criticism that one could make of it:  that as an attempt to document America in the post-9/11 world, this novel is profoundly limited in its scope.  Now, the fact that this book was quite literally (though tongue-in-cheekily) hailed as the Great American Novel probably isn’t a charge that can be laid at Franzen’s feet.  One suspects that he didn’t exactly ask for that, wasn’t even reaching for it, in fact.  But even as an attempt at social realism, this novel is really only documenting the lives of white middle class liberals involved in monogamous heterosexual relationships who have the resources to spend a great deal of time in a therapist’s office, people who have connections in New York City, people who can (or whose children can) get wildly implausible jobs with war profiteers before graduating from UVA, people with connections close to Dick Cheney. Conveniently, these are the people who tend to write reviews for the Times and Salon.

In other words, even while I felt the sting of some of Franzen’s satire, I have ultimately come to the realization that this novel is not really about me.  For one thing, I’m a woman, and Franzen appears to be woefully inadequate when it comes to realistically documenting the lives of women who aren’t slavishly committed to a man.  For another thing, I don’t have access to the ideas and resources for activism that are so richly available to these characters.  But I am not the only person for whom this novel does not speak.  Indeed, this novel seems to have little to say about non-white people (except for one brown secondary character who is barely a person), about queer people, about trans people, even about disabled people, and it is especially condescending toward lower or lower-middle class people.  Franzen has Walter and Patty’s daughter Jessica remind her father that he really shouldn’t air his resentment of ignorant poor folks in public when speaking for Free Space, the anti-growth movement they are attempting to start.  But otherwise, Walter’s belief that poor people are destroying the planet by having too many children, a product of their disgusting ignorance and allegiance to religion, is sort of allowed to remain intact.  In fact, when bringing up the fact that his neighbors use the recession as an excuse not to care about the environment, the novel seems to tacitly suggest that people who complain about hard times these days are just whiners who refuse to give up their ridiculous luxuries.

I might be reading that wrong.  The narrative voice slips between earnestness and irony enough that it can be difficult to tell what we’re supposed to hang onto, whether this little jab at suburbanites facing joblessness or foreclosure really is as devoid of compassion as it seems to be.  Similarly, it’s difficult to tell if this novel is as misogynistic as it seems to be.  In the wake of Franzenfreude, one reviewer for Salon was quick to insist that Franzen writes great female characters.  I’m just not convinced.  Yes, we spend about 160 pages in the consciousness of Patty Berglund, but we also spend time in the minds of three other men:  her husband, her lover and her son.  The rest of the women are flat.  Jessica, the daughter, exists purely to say reasonable stuff when her family members are losing their shit, though her other personality feature is having terrible taste in men.  Lalitha, Walter’s young assistant and eventual lover, is exclusively defined by her slavish adoration of her boss. Similarly, Connie is defined by her slavish adoration of Joey, and Jenna–a young socialite whom Joey dreams of bedding–exists purely to be a bitch to Joey and prompt his political awakening.  I think this novel may actually fail the Bechdel test, but I’d have to re-read it to be sure.  Yes, Jessica and Patty have scenes together, but they mostly talk about Walter or Jessica’s boyfriend.

In other words, most of the women lack subjectivity outside of their relationships with men, and even Patty proves willing to totally abase herself in order to win the affections of two men who are, quite frankly, total assholes:  Richard, a misogynistic hipster indie rock “star” and Walter, who is a classic Nice Guy.  Patty’s entire neurosis seems to be about her quest for a good fuck, and the implications of that quest get decidedly creepy when you consider the fact that she was raped as a teen and finds sexual catharsis in acts with both Richard and Walter that bear an unsettling resemblance to rape.  Later, Walter will blame Patty not only for having a brief affair with Richard but for making him want to have an affair with his assistant by being so depressed and insufferable all the time.  And we’re sort of supposed to feel sorry for him at that point.  And then, after throwing her out of her home and shutting her out of his life for six years, he only takes her back after she nearly kills herself by sitting on his doorstep in the Minnesota winter in a scene in which she is metaphorically compared, I shit you not, to a cat (in a book that deploys that makes “pussy” jokes with depressing frequency).

If the end of the novel makes any recommendations about how to live, it appears to be this:  you should get back together with your spouse who doesn’t really love or respect you;  you should bake cookies for your Fundamentalist neighbors and then educate them about how to prevent their house cats from killing endangered songbirds; and you should bulldoze your vacation home and make it into a bird sanctuary dedicated to your dead former lover.  It’s sort of depressing that this novel, which proves so willing to champion a certain amount of radical progressivism when it comes to the sustainability, winds up being so terribly conventional and, dare I say it, sentimental in the end.


1 thought on “The Political and the Personal: Thoughts on Freedom

  1. Excellent critique. I too had trouble with this book, and wondered why the author seemed to put a lot of time into his women characters but why were they so shallow, so self-abasing? I found every character to be repulsive, and not in any kind of fascinating can’t look away kind of way. My final takeaway was the ending: it seems that in order to get freedom you have to build a fence around it – if you’re a white man with enough money to do that.

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