Last night I finished the novel Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Even though the novel is almost ten years old (it was published in 2010), it is relevant now more than ever and I highly recommend you read it. I’m glad I found it at the library because I found it at Half Price Books and was about to buy it, but some inkling of intuition told me that I could easily score a free copy of it at the library, so I waited patiently and then went to the library to find it. At first I couldn’t find it and was a little sad, but then a librarian helped me out and found it on a display shelf for books of the month (or some kind of other theme, I forgot). Bingo! I thought, and I immediately started reading it.
What I love about this book is how very similar it is to the writing style of Michael Chabon and Jonathan Safran Foer, two of my favorite authors. Normally I prefer first person narratives to third-person narratives. I don’t know why, that’s just what I’ve always preferred. But so far, I have read Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon, Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer, and this novel, and I’m starting to realize that maybe I’m not as biased towards first person narratives as I thought I was. Franzen, like Chabon and Foer, uses the third person to allow the reader insight into the characters that we might not have gotten if we read it in the first person. I’m not saying first person isn’t insightful, but we only get to read about the situation from the main character’s point of view (or whoever’s point of view it is, if it’s a novel with more than one character, such as The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon). In Freedom, Patty and Walter Berglund are an American couple living in Minnesota. They seem to have the perfect life on the outside: they have two children, they live in a neighborhood that is becoming more and more gentrified, Walter has a great job and Patty seems to be the talk of the town, albeit not always in a good way. But as the book goes on, we find out that Walter and Patty aren’t the perfect couple, and are in fact quite imperfect in so many ways.
The book is genius not just because of its eloquent writing, but also because there’s an autobiographer who writes Patty’s biography so we gain extensive backstory into how she became who she is. Patty’s mom Joyce grew up poor, but her father, Ray, grew up rich, and so Patty and her sisters Veronica and Abigail grew up living this privileged life. However, Patty gets raped and her parents don’t handle it well, and so this sours the relationship between her and her parents. Patty befriends this girl named Eliza, who seems shy but turns out to be quite controlling of Patty, criticizing her and even refusing to let Patty see her singing and playing guitar. Eliza is friends with a guy named Richard Katz, who goes to Macalester College with Walter. Patty and Walter meet at one of Richard’s gigs, and when Eliza ditches her, Walter keeps her company, and soon they become a couple.
Flash forward more than a few years, and Patty and Walter are doing better than they ever did. Patty gets to stay at home with the kids Jessica and Joey, and Walter goes to his cushy job at 3M. But Richard Katz comes back having still not succeeded much in his career, still sleeping with women and mooching off of Patty and Walter’s good will. Then Walter gets a job at a coal company, and the guy who runs it wants to clear off land for a private sanctuary for cerulean mountain warblers because they are the guy’s favorite bird. Even though Walter grew up as an environmentalist, the fact that he would allow for mountain top removal in West Virginia just so the cerulean mountain warbler can have its own space, especially since the guy said that they were dwindling in number, is beyond ironic. It gets even more twisted when Walter has an affair with his assistant for the Cerulean Mountain Trust, Lalitha, a young woman in her late 20s who is working with Walter to raise awareness of overpopulation and how it’s killing the planet. What’s more twisted for the family is that their son, Joey, becomes a Republican and starts living with his girlfriend Connie because he can’t stand living with Patty anymore (it’s shocking for them because they are liberal).
If this novel taught me anything, it’s this: we can talk all we want to about freedom of speech, freedom from financial stress, and our free country (and, most recently, freedom gas). But no one is free of suffering. In Nichiren Buddhism, the only thing that truly sets us free is realizing that suffering is a part of life and that even if we’re suffering, we can turn that suffering into something positive. There are two kinds of happiness: relative and absolute. Relative is short-lived happiness: you get the dream job, the perfect spouse, the GPA that lands you into a top-tier grad school. But those things only make you happy for a short time because they require a lot of hard work and you may not like every part of the dream job, or you might end up burning out during grad school, or after a few years of your relationship, you might end up sick of your partner. You’ll find things to escape from your pain and misery, but those end up being temporary solutions to a larger problem. Then there’s absolute happiness, where even if you’re stuck in a job you don’t like, you got a divorce or any other kind of thing that makes you suffer, you can turn those sufferings into impetus to keep going no matter what. It seems that even though Walter and Patty have the perfect life, they don’t, because all this other stuff comes up in their lives and they aren’t prepared to deal with it. Walter is unhappy in his marriage, and even though he seeks escape from his problems through his involvement with environmental work, he still can’t shake the fact that he’s sick of being married to Patty and is lovesick for Lalitha. Lalitha also suffers because Walter is still married to Patty but still, in the end, loves Patty deep down, and Walter’s personal life is starting to affect his work rapport with Lalitha. Lalitha is pretty much the only person of color in the book, and even though the book doesn’t directly say it, it’s almost like she’s a prop for Walter. Walter doesn’t treat women very well, and neither does his friend Richard, but Lalitha is both a woman and a person of color. In one scene, a white man confronts Walter at a store and makes a derogatory comment about Lalitha’s race towards him, showing how even though Walter and Lalitha love each other, they still have to deal with bigots, people who live in the prison of racial bias and prejudice. The racist who confronts Walter about his relationship with Lalitha can’t free himself of his own ignorance, and deep down, even though the book doesn’t talk about it, this ignorance causes him, too, to suffer. Every character in the book goes through some sort of pain, which serves as a reminder of why literature is so important. Literature lets us know that we aren’t alone in our suffering, and that other people have problems, sometimes greater than our own.
There’s an archetype I studied in my English class: man versus nature, and this book works a lot with this archetype. Walter seeks to live a very Walden-esque life. For those who haven’t yet read Walden, it’s by the philosopher Henry David Thoreau and in the book he talks about how he dropped everything, went into the woods, built himself a shack and journaled about nature and politics. Even though Walter seeks an escape through nature, he can’t escape his own ego. He sees nature as a way to get away from the people he held most dear in his life, and this causes him to just suffer more. Walter leaves his cushy job at 3M so he can do conservation work, but it’s not a totally selfless pursuit because he’s really doing it to escape his relatives and his family, who never seemed to understand him or take him seriously. However, he is still not free because he must deal with the environmental consequences of his project. The Cerulean Mountain Trust isn’t in the end sustainable at all because even though it proposes a conservation sanctuary for a species of birds and thus helping it from going extinct, it still degrades the environment because it proposes clearing land for this sanctuary, thus putting people’s livelihood at risk and endangering other species. Freedom isn’t really freedom if it causes another being suffering, and the novel says that clearly through the actions and thoughts of its characters. Even though Walter and Patty are liberals, and seem to be free of biases and open minded, they are not free because they still have biases and are tethered to their pasts, and this affects their view of the world and their political views.
Overall, I really liked this book.
Freedom. Jonathan Franzen. 562 pp. 2010.