September 2010

Arts & Letters

‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen

By Michelle de Kretser

Artists in fiction are coded confessions. Freedom gives us Richard Katz, rock musician and homme fatal, pitched suddenly, just like Jonathan Franzen following The Corrections (2001), into fame. Since this is a novel that doesn’t fear platitude, liberal doses of sex and drugs attend Richard’s disenchantment with his fate. But the self-destructive wishes delivered by the backwash of stardom can wear a more ingenious guise. They can even take the form of writing badly; a resourceful ploy, in its way, from a novelist condemned to celebrity for having written extremely well.

With trapeze swoops back and forth in time, Freedom covers 40 years in the lives of Patty and Walter Berglund. White mid-westerners, they feed their children wholefoods, recycle batteries and live in a gentrified inner-city neighbourhood. Tensions surface when Joey, their son, decides he prefers the Republicans next door. Then their daughter goes to college, and the Berglunds are left with each other – whereupon Patty remembers that she prefers Richard, Walter’s oldest friend.

As The Corrections showed, Franzen excels at the dynamics of dysfunctional families. The best scene in Freedom describes what happens when Patty’s parents learn that she’s been date-raped. The charting of Walter and Joey’s clashes similarly rings true, while Walter and Richard’s friendship, the most intensely felt relationship in the book, is embedded in sibling-like rivalry and dependence.

But Freedom purports to tell the story of a marriage, and here Franzen flounders. His notion of complex, grown-up relationships retains an adolescent fixation with fantasy sex. The Berglunds’ marriage fails because Walter, with that rape in mind, doesn’t “attack Patty sexually”. When he finally “[throws] her on the floor and fuck[s] her like a brute”, she realises, too late, that she really loves him. Elsewhere, Richard is admiring “the navigational beacon” of his “clairvoyant dick”, Joey, also fondling his penis, is torn between an abject good girl and a bitch-goddess, and the lump in Walter’s throat – be grateful it’s not in his pants – is evidence of how much he still loves Patty.

As ambitious and self-righteous as the America it critiques, Freedom also takes in shonky military deals, native songbirds, green politics, the hipster music scene. It’s difficult to care when the prose is relentlessly ordinary, the trite message relentlessly paraded. Nearly 600 hundred pages tell us this: freedom doesn’t guarantee happiness, the Republicans are the bad guys and what a woman wants is consensual sex with a brute.

Nothing in this novel comes near the compassion or wit that lifted The Corrections into greatness. Its narratives sway into soap opera, its psychology is grounded in talk shows, its villains have strayed from the evening news. Freedom rants against populism, but in matters of style, character, story – every criterion that counts – this is a resolutely populist novel.

Broke and dodging fame, Richard takes to building decks. Writing, too, may be analogous to carpentry. Freedom resembles the currently fashionable dining table: plainly crafted, unpolished and very long. Such things help pass the time and might even impress. But they do not haunt.

Michelle de Kretser
Michelle de Kretser is the author of The Rose Grower, The Hamilton Case and The Lost Dog, which won the NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.

'Freedom' by Jonathan Franzen, Fourth Estate, 562pp; $32.99
Cover: September 2010
View Edition

From the front page

Image of Lieutenant General John Frewen. Image via ABC News Breakfast

The back of the back of the queue

Young people have waited patiently through the government’s slow rollout, but it’s now killing them

Image of Scott Morrison holding a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine. Image via Facebook

Vaccine resistance

Despite historically high vaccination rates, Australia has developed a significant anti-vax movement in the middle of a global pandemic

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Racing against time

The I-Kiribati Olympic sprinter hoping to draw attention to his nation’s climate catastrophe

Image of Julian Assange in London, April 11, 2019

The end game

WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange is slowly dying in a UK prison, as the US maintains its fight to have him die in theirs – but there is hope


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Doctor Who & Gai Waterhouse

Land of the long black cloud

'Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania's Forests' by Anna Krien, Black Inc., 304pp; $29.95

‘Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests’ by Anna Krien

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Means of production


More in Arts & Letters

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, ‘Portrait of Irène Cahen d’Anvers’ (La petite Irène), 1880

Breathless spaces: ‘The House of Fragile Things’

James McAuley’s examination of four great art-collecting families and the French anti-Semitism that brought their downfall

Image from ‘Shiva Baby’

Forebodings and a funeral: ‘Shiva Baby’

Emma Seligman’s funny but tense film is a triumph of writing and performance over spectacle

Image of Suzanne Ciani

Tip of the pops: ‘This Is Pop’ and ‘Song Exploder’

Two Netflix documentary series only manage to skim the surface of pop music history

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Time remaining

New poetry from the award-winning writer and critic


More in Noted

Image of Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, ‘A way of flying’ (c. 1819–1824)

Goya: Drawings from the Prado Museum

Goya’s dark and difficult works exhibited at NGV remind us how little the world has moved on from past horrors

Image of Carlo Crivelli, ‘Madonna and Child’ (1480).

European Masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

QAGOMA’s exhibition goes beyond the usual blockbuster bling to favour lesser known works of the masters

Cover of ‘The Five Wounds’

‘The Five Wounds’ by Kirstin Valdez Quade

A young down-and-out man in a New Mexico village seeks transcendence in a ceremonial role as Jesus, in this debut novel

Image of Richard Bell’s ‘Embassy’, 2013

‘Richard Bell: You Can Go Now’

The MCA’s retrospective of the influential activist-artist provides a fluent deconstruction of white supremacy


Read on

Image of Scott Morrison holding a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine. Image via Facebook

Vaccine resistance

Despite historically high vaccination rates, Australia has developed a significant anti-vax movement in the middle of a global pandemic

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Jenny Morrison laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier during the Anzac Day commemorative service on April 25, 2020. Image © Alex Ellinghausen / AAP Image/ Sydney Morning Herald Pool

A rallying crime

For a country that loves invoking the virtues of wartime sacrifice, why have our leaders failed to appeal to the greater good during the pandemic?

Photo of installation view of the exhibition Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow at NGV International. Photo © Tom Ross

Simultaneous persuasions: ‘Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow’

Radical difference and radical proximity are hallmarks of the French-born artist’s NGV exhibition

Still from The White Lotus. © Mario Perez / HBO

Petty bourgeoisie: ‘The White Lotus’

Mike White’s scathing takedown of privilege leads July’s streaming highlights