Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)


Dying Notes of an Ordinary Songbird?

by Susan Scutti  

The most present character of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom is not so much Patty Berglund as her generation and class. Franzen frames Patty in her choices and her choices are distinctly those that were made, as he would have it, by most everybody. In his first chapter, he declares of Patty, “She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.”  He then makes it clear that he's speaking to a reader who understands all of this because a reader inevitably lived on that same street; his reader is you and you are middle-class gentrification, no matter who you actually are or what city or town you come from. “The collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else’s children’s sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it.” Eventually, he concludes, “For all queries, Patty Berglund was a resource, a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee.”

And with these words we've backed out of the drive and begun our trip with this sunny carrier of  sociocultural pollen. Despite my suspicions that Franzen has created his Everywoman the way  Dr. Frankenstein might, stitching together disparate parts to resonate with each segment of his reading public --- she's originally from New York and now living in St. Paul, she's half WASP,  half Jewish, her original family was upper middle class yet she married a lower middle class guy, she's the oldest of four and formerly played sports in college, and now she's the stay-at-home mom of a daughter who is bright and normal and a son who is exceptional --- despite the fact that Franzen labors to hit every single key on his piano, I can't help but to enjoy and appreciate Patty Berglund. Franzen, after all, is a terrific writer, nimble in his plotting, succinct yet thorough in his characterizations, relentlessly topical and usually fun. Franzen has an unerring instinct for the juice of neighborly relations; describing Patty's rise and inevitable fall, he stops inside a jealous neighbor's house so a reader can overhear another woman cut Patty to pieces. Best of all, he repeatedly flogs her for the root trait of her eventual demise: Patty is and always has been competitive and at times she's inept at hiding that fact. Within the lock-step conformity of the middle class, what could possibly be more damning than this? For that jagged truth alone,  Franzen must be appreciated.

Quoting Shakespeare's The Winter’s Tale in his epigraph, Franzen foreshadows the adultery at the heart of his own winter's tale, which presumably is the dying season of American empire. Walter, Patty's husband, is the environmentally-aware guy who rides to an office job weekday mornings on a bike. Around the time his wife flips out over their son's affair with the slightly older lower-class girl next door, Walter begins to distance himself from his family by becoming more involved in green politics. Soon he's shuttling back and forth to Washington D.C. and eventually he accepts a position with a private trust protecting the cerulean warbler, a native American songbird which is rapidly disappearing due to removal of mature hardwood forests as well as the presence of household cats (the cerulean warbler has never evolved proper defenses to this non-native species). After Joey has moved in with his girlfriend's family, after a distraught Patty has consummated then ended her brief affair with Walter's former-college-roommate, the Berglund family, minus Joey, sets up house in a Georgetown mansion that doubles as headquarters for the Cerulean Mountain Trust.

With his assistant Lalitha, Walter visits his former roommate, Richard Katz, now a cultish rocker --- the songs he wrote after the demise of his affair with Patty have catapulted him to fame. Unaware of his wife's infidelity and hoping Richard will lend celebrity to his own cause, Walter explains his vision of creating a cerulean warbler preserve in West Virginia by first permitting coal extraction via mountain top removal. Walter believes that reclamation following mountain top removal (MTR) will mitigate much of the damage --- what's best about it is the preserve will be safe as no one will ever rip open the mined-out land again. Walter explains his perspective:

What’s given MTR such a bad name is that most surface-rights owners don’t insist on the right sort of reclamation. Before a coal company can exercise its mineral rights and tear down a mountain, it has to put up a bond that doesn’t get refunded until the land’s been restored. And the problem is, these owners keep settling for these barren, flat, subsidence-prone pastures, in the hope that some developer will come along and build luxury condos on them, in spite of their being in the middle of nowhere. The fact is, you can actually get a very lush and biodiverse forest if you do the reclamation right. … But the environmental mainstream doesn’t want to talk about doing things right, because doing things right would make the coal companies look less villainous and MTR more palatable politically.

Walter outlines his understanding of this confluence of finance, government, corporate interests, private investment and environmental cause then explains that this is merely a preliminary before he tackles the real problem: low-density development, fragmentation, and over-population. Reading the ins and outs of what is, for the well-intentioned Walter, an acceptable solution, glimpsing the compromise and deal-making and taint behind simple preservation of land for an endangered species is enough to smog a reader's mind for days. Unfortunately, it stinks of the truth and this is Franzen's horrifying point; this is where it’s at in America now, bloated bureaucracy and innumerable interest groups mean absolutely nothing is simple (or sacred). To create his preserve, Walter ends up making a deal so that displaced homeowners will be given jobs at a factory run by LBI, the oilfield services giant and government contractor that manufactures body armor and also happens to employ Walter's son, Joey. Father and son, then, are caught in the same web... what will they do? 

Despite the urgency of this environmental plot-line, the lifeblood of Franzen’s novel is Patty's marriage to Walter. Gracefully, compellingly, Franzen offers a reader his understanding of the crucial psychological underpinnings of their marriage, the emotional counterpoint that creates both consonance and discord: Patty's high school rape, and Walter's drunk father's cruelty. Raped by Ethan Post, the son of wealthy friends of her parents, Patty feels abandoned by her parents. A pragmatic lawyer, her father outlines what he believes will be her humiliation, not her rapist's: “Patty, the people at the party were all friends of his. They’re going to say they saw you get drunk and be aggressive with him. They’ll say you were behind a shed that wasn’t more than thirty feet from the pool, and they didn’t hear anything untoward.” Disappointed, hurt, Patty notes, “You’re not on my side, are you.” After rape and lack of justice, Patty becomes “a real player, not just talent” on the basketball court, a girl who is “no longer on speaking terms with physical pain.”

Her husband's childhood has been sculpted by a drunk father who favors his first-born son while doing his ample best to beat down his book-loving son, Walter; one of the father's favored tactics is to demand Walter perform the most humiliating chores at the family-run motel. In order to support his family in his father's demise, Walter gives up his dream of becoming a filmmaker so that he can work extra jobs while attending law school. When Walter, a natural caretaker, meets the needy Patty, he falls in love yet his knowledge of her rape makes him too sensitive, too careful, too respectful in bed and ultimately not as exciting as the more self-aware Katz. Thus Franzen animates these psychological portraits of Patty and Walter who blindly enter the inevitable crisis of mid-life in which Walter will choose between Patty and his assistant, Lalitha, an Indian-American raised in Missouri by engineer parents.

First seen through Katz's eyes, who describes her merely as an “Indian chick,” Lalitha is the notable exception in more ways than one within this comedy of errors (or Mistakes, as Patty would have it) among the middle class. I can’t argue with Franzen’s understanding of the separate fate of the one character of color as compared to the other characters. This is his vision after all, and it may very well be the true state of America in the earliest years of the Twenty-First Century. So, too, he may be correct in his understanding of greed as the natural yet unsavory offspring of a union of upper middle class and lower middle class (as embodied by Joey Berglund and Connie Monaghan). I’m not sure his perceptions are unfounded, so much as I fear them; Franzen unfortunately has done his job too well, seduced and implicated his readers too fully, so that seeing the truth played out in fictional form hits too close to home.  

Finally, mention must be given to the title of this novel. Although at first "Freedom" seems both too serious and too sprawling a word for what transpires on these pages, Franzen's ironic meaning becomes clear by novel's end. Hemmed in by government, big business, neighbors and the limitations of our own characters, our American freedom is as endangered as that of the cerulean warbler.