Freedom, Mr. Franzen’s long awaited follow-up to The Corrections was at once engaging and completely frustrating to me. Still a family drama (like the former) the latter focuses on a Patty & Walter Berglund’s marriage. And while it’s viewed from several angles and sometimes it seems to be completely off the radar, you know it’s still there, at the core of everything. Not because it’s one of those happy marriages, shining a light on everything they touch – and not because it’s the opposite – but simply because it’s a magnetic force you can’t help but being drawn into.
It all starts with the birth of a suburb – where we get a first look at the Berglund’s story (and their rise together with their little suburb’s) through neighbourhood gossip. The peculiar, plastic quality of Patty’s self-imposed (as we later come to learn) niceness seeps through her every word from the beginning and the neighbours don’t view the young family with terribly kind eyes. Conflicts are judged, sides are taken, we witness the children growing, their mother’s incapacity to act accordingly and their father’s incapacity to relate (especially to the boy, Joey) and, finally, their move to Washington.
Following this crash course in the superficiality of a relationship we get alternating chapters with Patty’s life story before, through and after the marriage; Walter’s youth and his work with Cerulean Mountain Trust (an environmental organization supported by mining companies, for which he ends up supporting MTR), Joey’s (mis)adventures in business and love and, finally, Richard’s rise to semi-fame as a front man for an indie band. Richard, of course, is Walter’s college roommate, Patty’s initial draw to Walter and her eternal what if.
Where The Corrections dealt with hindsight, over-analysis and pain of being stuck in a destructive pattern, Freedom deals with…well….freedom of all shapes and sizes and its pitfalls. Patty yearns to be free to be bad, to be the bad person that she feels she is on the inside (and she cheats on her husband), Joey wants to be free from his parents (and makes some costly business deals) and Walter wants to be free to pursue his interest in overpopulation (and makes some morally questionable choices himself). After all, any freedom comes at a price, and everyone is paying through the nose.
Freedom is just as funny, as ironic and as insightful as The Corrections but Walter’s environmental concerns, though an indelible part of who his is, seem to take up too much space and get to be quite tiring and preachy in their pc-ness. But what Mr. Franzen does best is create fully rounded characters – not just relatable, but real and unique. Patty’s journey, for example and her dedication to being the opposite of her mother and whole family is mirrored by her own children’s similar commitment and doesn’t strike one false note. And various reviewers seem to have enjoyed it too – so you can take their word and give it a shot: NYT, Guardian, The Independent.
Oh, and this fragment (among others) reminded me that Mr. Franzen really is a crank. And he’s probably right, too.
It’s like the internet, or cable TV – there’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things and dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls., reacting to the latest random stimuli.
Almost forgot – I also read Alastair Reynold’s The Prefect, a fun noirish scifi which I’d really recommed to anyone enjoying either genre and to the uninitiated in the world of space operas (such as myself :D). I just don’t feel like writing a whole post on it.