Posted on | September 1, 2010 | 6 Comments
The ruckus caused by the arrival of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom in the weeks before it even hit stores is already well documented. There was the Great Future of Fiction debate, the Great Chauvinism debate, and the proclamations of uncompromised Greatness. Part of me is already sick of hearing about it, but that hardly seems fair to its author. What of the book itself?
Freedom is a massive, multi-generational family novel that, like The Corrections before it, is most notable for its thoroughness. “Thorough” is a dry adjective, so let me explain what I mean. Why Franzen’s novels are so successful (and why his success seems to irritate) is that he sees farther than us. There is a totality to what he writes that extends beyond its visible horizons, a moral universe as well as a visual one. Whether or not one believes in the fundamental enterprise of realism—a conversation for another time—there are few equal practitioners of it working in America today. His characters enact perfectly that familiar dance of self-knowledge and self-deceit, choosing how far to burrow into their own consciousnesses based on whether it will help them to get whatever end-result they hope, often despite themselves, to effect. Franzen has never been shy about his ambition, and it’s clear he imagines the Berglunds, the family at the center of Freedom, taking their place among the Rostovs, the Buddenbrooks, the Schlegels, and all those great literary clans who saw the world shift around them while they tried to get their bearings. That in Franzen’s particular world characters tap out text messages and play Big 10 basketball makes the novel’s nineteenth-century inheritance all the more uncanny.
But as least as much as Franzen takes on his literary forebears, he sets for himself the equally daunting task of engaging with the political canon. It is not for nothing that Freedom has a title (not to mention volume) worthy of a hulking classic of political philosophy. So when Joey, the Berglunds’ son, finds his roommate reading John Stuart Mill, it seemed to me a deliberate name check. In fact, the entirety of Freedom could be taken as one long performance of everything that Mill, in his utilitarian idealism, got wrong. Mill is not generally one to overlook the darker currents of human nature, but it’s hard to imagine he could have foreseen a family like the Berglunds.
The Berglunds are, as Franzen makes clear, a rather ordinary lot. The first chapter—narrated with a judgmental, almost cruel omniscience that disappears thereafter—suggests that their singularity is entirely archetypal: “Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill—the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen on hard times three decades earlier.” Nor, we are given to assume, are they the last. Walter Berglund, the father of the family, is a lawyer and conservationist from a hardscrabble background obsessed with overpopulation. Patty is a competitive East Coast refugee from an obnoxious political family prone to bouts of excessive self-pity. Their children, Joey and Jessica are, in their own ways, almost maniacally competent. The cruelties that they will all go on to inflict on one another are at once typical and not—they are the small lies and infidelities that, taken in aggregate, have the ability to ruin a life.
In On Liberty, Mill outlines a vision of freedom wherein the only constraints on the actions of any one person are those which entail harm unto others. He is not so naïve as to believe in an automatic consensus of what constitutes harm, but he does believe that it’s possible for untempered individuality to exist alongside a sense of the common good:
A person who shows rashness, obstinacy, self-conceit—who cannot live within moderate means—who cannot restrain himself from hurtful indulgences—who pursues animal pleasures at the expense of those of feeling and intellect—must expect to be lowered in the opinion of others, and to have a less share of their favourable sentiments; but of this he has not right to complain, unless he has merited their favour by special excellence in his social relations, and has thus established a title to their good offices, which is not affected by his demerits towards himself.
Well, if only Patty Berglund had read that before she went and slashed her beer-swilling Republican neighbor’s tires.
I make no claim that Freedom is by any stretch a kind of one-to-one test of Mill’s harm principle. What Franzen does do, however, is capture the difference between a conceptual and an experiential politics. Like his nineteenth-century progenitors, he checks our moral compass against its reality on the ground (this, not simply mimesis, is the heart of the realist tradition). When Freedom does venture into overt engagement with its chosen themes, it feels almost superfluous. “By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free,” Patty writes in her therapist-mandated memoir. Given that these miseries are plainly visible, it seems a bit literal when the characters, at various moments, give voice to their anxieties about freedom; it’s like Franzen wrote his own SparkNotes. The novel isn’t in any direct sense a political novel any more than, say, Howards End is a political novel; rather, it’s a look at why our grand political concepts, with the weighty traditions they command, only mean so much when held up against the messy realities of individual lives. Franzen is one of the only contemporary novelists bold enough to mobilize these two literary traditions at once—he realizes that a character can be at once idiosyncratic in the way real people are and still speak representatively to the social whole. In Freedom, it’s the smaller moments, when Patty and Walter’s inchoate wants, and the liberties they take, do real harm to those they love that the novel makes its most coherent claims about the excesses, and limits, of our freedoms.