Nine years have passed since the publication of Jonathan Franzen’s monumental novel The Corrections. That book, a National Book Award winner, remains one of the best and most popular American works of literary fiction of this new century. And it casts a long shadow over any piece of fiction Franzen subsequently chooses to write.
“The disorientations of going from relative obscurity to relative well-knownness were obviously daunting,” the author acknowledges during a call to his home in Santa Cruz, California. Franzen “got involved with a Santa Cruz girl,” the writer Kathy Chetkovich. As a result, each year the pair spend a month in the winter and most of the summer on the West Coast. In New York, Franzen writes in a small, sparsely furnished studio apartment. In Santa Cruz, while school is out of session, UC Santa Cruz offered him office space.
“I have the kind of nature that needs to prove that it wasn’t any fluke, that I can do it again.”
Addressing the personal impact of the success of The Corrections, Franzen says, “I have the kind of nature that needs to prove that it wasn’t any fluke, that I can do it again. So the pressure from the outside was combined with an enormous internal pressure.”
The pressure has served Franzen extremely well. His new novel, Freedom, is different from The Corrections but is, in its own way, as good as its predecessor. The novel concerns the travails of the Berglunds, a seemingly perfect, progressive, middle-class family whose lives fall apart shortly after 9/11.
Freedom is a sort of contemporary epic, part tragedy and part comedy, whose basic story is swiftly outlined in the novel’s pitch-perfect opening section, “Good Neighbors,” part of which appeared in the New Yorker. There we meet the young Berglunds, early gentrifiers of the Ramsey Hill section of St. Paul, Minnesota. Patty, a former college basketball star, is a self-deprecating, “sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen,” so devoted to parenting her children Jessica and Joey as to excite envy among her neighbors. Walter, a “generous and smiling” young lawyer who rides a commuter bike to work and spends weekends rehabbing the family’s Victorian, is thought by neighbors to be “greener than Greenpeace.”
The first fissure in the family façade develops as their entrepreneurial and surprisingly self-possessed son Joey rebels against his father’s authority, then falls in love with the girl next door, the daughter of a jilted mistress of a local politician, and finally moves out of the Berglund household and into the considerably more conservative and lower-class home of his girlfriend. By the time Joey finally heads off to college, the family is in tatters. They leave St. Paul and head to Washington, D.C., where Walter has taken a job with a foundation devoted to saving the habitat of the Cerulean Warbler, whose sole funding comes from an energy magnate named Vin Haven—who is, as it turns out, a close associate of Vice President Dick Cheney.
The remainder of the novel drills deeper into the family’s frustrations, competitions and betrayals, and the moral and political compromises that divide these family members and their friends and lovers. Franzen’s characters are not entirely likable people, and there is more than enough sadness and disappointment to make Freedom a difficult book to read. And yet, through the sheer force of Franzen’s abilities—his mastery of tone and voice, his sharp understanding of family dynamics and his subtle sense of humor—Freedom rings with meaning and pulses with recognizable contemporary life. In the end, the novel is oddly and surprisingly uplifting.
In conversation, Franzen is extremely reluctant to speak about his weighty novel’s multiple levels of meaning. It’s as if he doesn’t want to intrude upon a reader’s freedom to decide for herself. Asked what he’d like readers to think about when they finish reading Freedom, he demurs, saying, “I’m just hoping people have an experience with the book. I want the pages to turn without effort. I think that’s probably more important than ever. Because we are competing with so many other media, the challenge is to try to do something interesting and halfway serious, within the context of easily distracted people. I mean, I am an easily distracted reader. If the book’s not doing it, there are a lot of other things I could be doing.”
On the other hand, Franzen is astonishingly, even courageously forthcoming about the personal demons that at some subterranean level inform
Freedom. “Even though The Corrections drew directly on some experiences I had when my father was dying,” Franzen says, “it didn’t get into the real stuff with me and my parents, and it steered entirely clear of my rather long marriage. Even though there’s nothing in the new book that actually happened to me—there’s not a scene, there’s not an incident that is from my own life—to go a little way into the shameful heart of my fraught relationship with my mom, to go a little way into the kind of things, again shameful, that happen in a long marriage, was really the core adventure.
“And I might also say that not having kids was something I was dealing with in the years when the book was coming together. Specifically it manifested itself in a kind of rage against young people that I was feeling some years ago. So it was important for me to try to create a young character [Joey] who I could love and forgive—if only to be rid of an anger that I knew really had nothing to do with its object.”
Then there is the thread of Franzen’s political and environmental anger. “I’m an old environmental writer,” Franzen says “Yet the environment is just about the hardest thing there is to write about. The news is bad, and your rhetorical options are either to shrilly and unrealistically decry what other people are doing, or to guiltily and despairingly acknowledge what is happening. Neither of those make for good fiction. So I wanted a character [Walter] who might be lovable for other reasons, who could also embody some of the environmentalist rage that I was certainly feeling during the Bush years and am certainly feeling now with what’s happening in the Gulf.”
Yet the wily, manipulative energy baron Vin Haven is, in Franzen’s characterization, a pretty good guy. “It’s very hard to make fiction out of political anger,” he explains. “When you’re speaking politically, you really can’t allow in the possibility that you are the problem. But of course we are all the problem. The flip side of that is that the people we see as the problem in our political way of thinking are also people too.”
Franzen’s adherence to the dictates of good fiction at the expense of ideology is embodied in a set of psychologically, morally and, yes, politically complex characters. The novel, he says, “only took a year to actually write the pages. The eight years preceding that were spent coming up with interesting, difficult characters who I could nonetheless love.”
Whether readers will also love these characters remains to be seen, but they will certainly appreciate Franzen’s ability to transmute the dross of contemporary American life into the gold of Freedom.
Want more on Freedom? Check out Alden Mudge's 'behind the interview' blog post.