Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Freedom is a novel published in the year 2010 by American novelist Jonathan Franzen; published to great acclaim by critics and readers, it turned Franzen into a literary celebrity and phenomenon. His first masterpiece The Corrections compelled me to pick up Freedom from the nearest Waterstones, which had only one copy available in stock. Earlier, I had watched multiple Franzen interviews and book reviews for Freedom, especially by For the love of Ryan and Better than Food on YouTube. Both of them declared this novel to be thrilling, emotionally compelling and humorous in different and similar ways to The Corrections.
This book turned Franzen into a phenomenon and cultural icon, for instance, Time magazine dubbed him to be ‘The Great American Novelist’ of the twenty-first century. The novel was also commercially successful, selling more copies than The Corrections. Barack Obama called the novel “terrific” and Oprah Winfrey, who praised The Corrections and selected it for her book club, also called the novel “a masterpiece”, being the second Franzen novel to be selected for the book club. It came to be known, surprisingly, as his second masterpiece. Jonathan Franzen succeeded in making the book live up to its predecessor and also surpass the standards set by it; he took seven years to plan and an additional one year to write the novel which is a testimony to the fact that the novel seems to be more authoritative, precise and consistent as compared to his magnum opus, The Corrections.
One impressive fact about the author’s idea of the title of this novel is rooted in his idea of liberating himself from the confining and stultifying boundaries of his earlier works of fiction. Franzen wrote this novel with the sole aim in mind of writing a great story which entertains, saddens and terrifies the reader and most importantly, compels them to think. Freedom is a beautiful title for this book, and it works on many levels as The Corrections did. Franzen has a way of choosing his titles and making it appear on every seventy, eighty or hundred pages in different contexts, different lives of different characters. Every single time the title appears, it changes and modifies itself into different manifestations of common life so that the reader perceives the multitudinous undercurrents beneath the surface of the same word.
Freedom is a story about Walter Berglund, Patti Berglund, Joey Berglund and Richard Katz and Walter’s Indian secretary Lalitha. It is a tale of complex and painful familial and convivial relationships which Franzen portrays skilfully and brilliantly like a master of realism should do. The plot is more domestic and contained in terms of setting yet limitless in scope. The contrariness of the character’s inner and physical nature is dubious, doubtful and double-faced. Walter Berglund’s marriage is on the verge of falling apart when Richard Katz, his best friend, walks back into the couple’s life and their son Joey, moves out to live with a Republican neighbour’s daughter Connie, with whom he has a sexual relationship. Walter loves Patti deeply, but he begins to share a complex and difficult relationship with Lalitha due to the consequences and the fallout which constructs the central plot of the novel. Patti’s sexual interest in Richard is reignited as a result of her sexual dissatisfaction with her husband. Both Richard and Patti also know that they love Walter more than anyone in this world.
Their actions go against their feelings in complex and different ways. Franzen presents this dichotomy beautifully because as humans, we feel differently than what we are expected to feel. The question of being lucky and ending up still unhappier is one that pops up many times in the novel which classifies misery, narcissism and the need-for-love-and-pleasure as an innate psychological state which is rather not determined by the things we receive to satiate them because, in the end, we are never satisfied.
Freedom is an extremely progressive, innovative and contemplative novel which meditates upon the notion of liberty and the harmful nature of it, the struggles that liberty entails, and non-redemptive decisions hewn out of free will which lead human beings to both destroy themselves and their surroundings. It has a feel-and-texture of classic dystopian novels except that this is a modern realist family novel with uncountable sexual jokes and dark humour that typical Franzen fans will gush over. The readers who found The Corrections to be too high-brow to their reading taste and overlong will find that Freedom is equally masterful yet it reads like a short novel, despite its heavy tome, due to the smoothness of prose and sharp editing which displays the craft of a writer at the top of his game. The novel feels as if Franzen has come to terms with his new voice, literary ambition and skilfulness; because this novel seems to be wonderfully perfect. The character work is mind-blowing because this novel, structurally and narratively, is complex and difficult to write. It is a novel which is more complex in structure and character work in comparison to The Corrections. The patches of overlong-ness and roughness in The Corrections have been corrected in this novel, and the result is brilliance. It pays homage to War and Peace, which is a reason for many of the narratorial decisions and references in the novel. I would also suggest people read Michiko Kakutani’s review because she stresses the connection between War and Peace and Freedom.
If we achieve freedom and our desires are fulfilled according to the free will of our actions, will we create a web of miseries for ourselves to fall into with no one to blame anybody but us for our actions and consequences? It is a fundamental question not only to this novel but also to the times we live in. Jonathan Franzen has delivered his second masterpiece, which is one of the most meaningful novels of our time and showcases the power of the novel form at its peak. It is emotionally devastating, morally depraved at times yet nonetheless enriching and reassuring of the deep humanity that is innate to the human species. There is a certain point in the novel, near to the end, when it reaches divinity, yes, it reaches a point where the readers would be left breathless against the dazzling light of the novelist’s viewpoint, at once revelatory and justified in all its shades of human truth.