Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010), like The Corrections (2001) before it, uses the lives of one family to tell the story of an age. Just as the earlier novel explored all of the possible meanings of the word “correction,” Freedom is all about “freedom.” In the land of the Bill of Rights and Route 66, freedom is invariably positive. Not so, however, for the Berglund family.
Walter Berglund, the environmental lawyer, finds himself continually at odds with his neighbors’ ethic of individual liberty, which leads to loud noises, dead birds and a Bush in the White House. His son Joey, the rebellious Republican, finds that the free market he extols is really a rigged game. A number of characters must weigh the security and support of monogamy against the freedom of its alternatives.
The structure of the novel is a bit misleading. It opens with a chapter about the Berglunds written from the perspective of their neighbors, somewhat reminiscent of the communal narration of Jeffery Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. We then get three chapters of an autobiography written by Patty Berglund as a psychotherapeutic exercise. I expected the book to continue with these creative narrative approaches, but it instead settles into a more conventional approach, with most of the remaining chapters told from the third-person limited point of view of the different characters. Franzen revives his earlier conceits near the end with another chapter from Patty’s autobiography as well as another chapter from the perspective of the community.
The Berglunds are far from a typical family, yet their story expresses something universal about life in America between 9/11 and the Great Recession. These two crises bookend the main action, in which the national drive for physical and financial security underlie everything. Freedom is an important document of life in the Aughts. [subscribe2]