"Just what is it that you want to do?" "We want to be free. We want to be free to do what we want to do." Within a decade, Peter Fonda's memorable plea to "the man" in Roger Corman's counterculture-defining 1966 film The Wild Angels would be the stuff of self-fulfilling prophecy. No longer answerable to the preceding generation, America's youth were, by the late 1970s, free to do exactly as they wanted. How they would live with that freedom is the question at the heart of Jonathan Franzen's first novel since his 2001 National Book Award-winning The Corrections.
Like that novel, Freedom is, on its surface, the story of one family. The Berglunds – Walter and Patty and their children Joey and Jessica – live in St Paul, Minnesota, where the couple met at college in the late 1970s. The Berglunds are pioneers and gentrifiers, at the forefront of the "Whole Foods generation", recycling first their house, then the area around them, as they build a world as far as they dare from their own upbringing.
All is going fine until Jessica goes to college and Joey shacks up with Connie Monaghan, the sexually predatory girl next door. That Joey decides to swap his enlightened surroundings to live in a house with a pick-up truck in the drive and motorised reclining armchairs in the TV room is enough to send his mother into therapy, and, sure enough, the next section of the book is entitled "Mistakes Were Made: Autobiography of Patty Berglund (Composed at her Therapist's Suggestion)".
While other critics have complained that the voice Patty adopts is too writerly, what reading her memoir establishes is a contact with character that would otherwise be unattainable. Do we like Patty any more for this? No, but before long, we are outside looking in to the places her husband has never been granted access – her ongoing lust for her husband's best friend, a moody and enigmatic musician. Suddenly, this good suburban neighbour is a woman teeming with unresolved life.
The altogether weaker Walter, meanwhile, can add the weight of the world's environmental woes to his already overburdened shoulders. As the couple's relationship crumbles, Walter "didn't know how to live... There was no controlling narrative, he seemed to himself a purely reactive pinball in a game whose only object was to stay alive for staying alive's sake." Patty, meanwhile, asks her journal: "Where did this self-pity come from? By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life... yet all she ever seemed to get for her choices and all her freedom was more miserable." One minor character puts it more succinctly: "Freedom can be a pain in the ass."
Writing in prose that dazzles only with its frightening depth of insight, Franzen has now written the two novels (one pre- and one post-9/11) that best define modern America. And if the reviews that hailed Freedom "the novel of the century" have already resulted in a backlash against the book's lack of experimentalism and focus on middle-class white people, such criticism has, as ever, sprung from those without the gift or dedication to ever write a book this good.
Because if The Corrections was prescient about the economic meltdown, Freedom foreshadows nothing less than the death of the liberal dream; the brutal truth that when not following the path laid out for you becomes the path laid out for you, we are all lost souls trapped by the technology at our fingertips and our own infinite possibilities.
Freedom is that endangered species: a good read that is also an important book. It is these things not because it breaks any new ground, but because it is deeper, funnier and – by the time you get, sobbing even as your brain screams "But I don't even like these people!", to the end – sadder and truer than a work of fiction has any right to be.
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