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
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