Freedom to Fail

Jonathan Franzen ponders the glories and limits of American freedom.


Freedom: A Novel, by Jonathan Franzen, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 576 pages, $28

Jonathan Franzen may be the country's most popular literary novelist. In Freedom, his aptly titled new book, he takes on the question of American liberty: what it means and what it's worth. He stumbles over some political stereotypes along the way, but in the end Franzen's fatalistic message has an optimistic edge: that there just might be something noble about our freedom to fail.

Freedom is superficially focused on a single couple, Patty and Walter Berglund, as they meet, marry, raise kids, and eventually grow middle-aged and apart. In tracking the lives of the Berglunds and their acquaintances, Franzen touches on topics as diverse as parenting, gentrification, real estate, mid-life crises, coal mining, population growth, environmentalism, the war in Iraq, crony capitalism, neoconservative dynasties, punk rock, alt-country, marriage, and sexual commitment. 

But the novel is more than a guide to the enthusiasms, vanities, and complications of America's educated upper-middle class. And though Franzen dips in and out of half a dozen narrative threads, the maze of story lines is not the real point of the book either.

At its core, Freedom explores the tension between the stability of communal bonds and the constant quest for self-definition; its theme is whether and how freedom exists amid individuals' fraught relationships with their families and communities. More broadly, it is about how Americans go about choosing what we want to do and who we want to be. In Franzen's vision of bourgeois life during the George W. Bush administration, those decisions turn out to be made mostly by looking at what your parents and predecessors did and then trying to do the opposite, even if it means screwing up everything in the process. Underlying the novel's family tensions and social convulsions is a question: Is this cycle of social and personal upheaval the inevitable cost of freedom?

Like his most famous book, 2001's  The Corrections, Franzen's new novel is a snapshot of a recent era—in this case, the second Bush presidency. The plot features a dash of political intrigue, as Walter Berglund cuts deals with a mining company linked to Vice President Dick Cheney and Berglund's son becomes involved in a kooky plot to defraud the U.S. military. But Franzen is chiefly interested in politics as it is experienced by Americans outside the professional political sphere.

That's good, because Franzen is no connoisseur of policy debates or the minutiae of political gamesmanship. (The sections that do involve Washington-centric political machinations are among the least believable.) He does, however, maintain an acute grasp of the fuzzy distinctions between political affiliation and lifestyle. Politics, as Franzen portrays it, is not a matter of governance but of self-expression.

The opening chapter buries the early decades of Patty and Walter's marriage in an avalanche of cultural signifiers. As we meet the couple, they are young, tolerant, big-city gentrifiers. They are fresh out of college and eager to remake their newly purchased old home—and perhaps the world as well—into a more comfortable place. He rides his bike to work; she pushes a stroller through the neighborhood. He takes a job with the Nature Conservancy; she drinks wine, drives a Volvo, and listens to National Public Radio.

Having started with this knowing caricature of 21st-century liberalism, Franzen spends the rest of the novel complicating it. The sardonic opening chapter, told from the outsider perspective of other residents in the neighborhood, is reserved, wry, semi-ironic; it's as much a picture of the community's hive-mind as it is of the Berglunds. What follows is more emotionally turbulent: wrenching, deeply personal, and rather messy, like a kinder, more intimate John Updike novel. The perfect liberal marriage portrayed in the opening turns out to be arduously strained, and the painful family histories of both Patty and Walter add depth to the clichéd character types Franzen starts with. The slow reveal suggests how easy it is to feel as though you know everything about a person or a family yet eventually find that you don't really know them at all.

Perhaps Franzen's neatest trick is to uphold the initial portrait's essential truth while revealing the way it condenses and simplifies the Berglunds, as well as a whole class of Americans, into easily digestible stereotypes. The clarity and humanity with which Franzen unpacks those stereotypes clearly stems from a sympathetic familiarity with the Berglunds' brand of comfortable middle-class liberalism. The Berglunds are difficult, uptight, cruel, selfish, impossible, and inscrutable, and it is very easy to feel sympathy for them.

That sympathy doesn't extend to the novel's few conservative characters. A mean-spirited evangelical neighbor takes "secret pleasure" in ginning up neighborhood hatreds. A crudely stereotyped Jewish neoconservative intellectual delivers a lecture on a "new blood libel" and casually declares that, when it comes to building support for the war in Iraq, "We have to learn to be comfortable with stretching some facts." Franzen's liberals transcend their stereotypes. His conservatives merely re-enact them.

The book is more thoughtful about another sort of conservatism. Freedom frequently suggests that even our footloose society is rooted firmly in the past, with whole communities defined by choices made long ago. The characters' assertions of individuality are struggles to define themselves against their histories, families, and communities. The whole cast is locked in a generational dialectic.

Take Patty Berglund, whose diary-like "autobiography" takes up most of the book's first half. Patty's parents—affluent, liberal, politically and socially connected—encouraged their children to explore the arts, to indulge in their own fleeting creative impulses, and not to worry about the social pressure to find productive employment. Yet Patty defines herself by refusing to partake in politics, art, and individual indulgence. 

Walter Berglund's father was an alcoholic; he is a teetotaler. His brother is a loud-mouthed womanizer; Walter is quiet, intellectual, and obsessively gentle around women. His family treats its land with carelessness and disdain; he becomes a committed environmentalist.

Patty and Walter's son Joey continues the cycle. Aggressively Republican where his parents are liberal, business-focused where they are oriented toward public service, cold and calculating where they are empathetic, Joey rebels by moving in with the blue-collar Republican family next door and signing on to a dubious but potentially profitable scheme to sell bogus vehicle parts to the U.S. military.

This is a picture of social evolution, one driven and dissatisfied individual at a time. Failure—of parents, children, governments, communities, philosophies, and business schemes—is at the heart of everything. In Freedom, failure is the fuel of angst and growth, the engine of personal and social change. Franzen's characters live lives that echo the libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises' model of human action: It requires both dissatisfaction with your current situation and a plausible vision of a better state. No one leaps from a ledge unless he has good reason to believe a solid landing, and hopefully a better perch, awaits him.

All of the Berglunds believe a better life requires them to abandon the ways of the previous generation. And so they leap. But wherever they land, they find themselves beset by new troubles. As Patty, narrating her own life, quips, "All she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable." And so they change again. Franzen is presenting not so much the paradox of choice as the fatalism of free will. 

"Capitalism can't handle talking about limits," one character declares. The system is fundamentally based on "the restless growth of capital." Freedom is the story of a family carried along in a similar current of restless growth. Yet Franzen invests their struggles with enough richness and humanity that their ceaseless effort to break free of their pasts and their communities, to overcome the stereotypes that the world has built for them, is somehow noble anyway. The meaning his characters yearn for is ultimately found only in their restless pursuits. Freedom in America is the freedom to rebel, to fail, and to make mistakes—which, at the very least, are your own. 

Peter Suderman is an associate editor at reason.