Freedom is a 2010 novel by American author Jonathan Franzen. It was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Freedom received general acclaim from book critics, and was ranked one of the best books of 2010 by several publications, and has been described as a "Great American Novel".
Jonathan Earl Franzen (born August 17, 1959) is an American novelist and essayist. His 2001 novel The Corrections, a sprawling, satirical family drama, drew widespread critical acclaim, earned Franzen a National Book Award, was a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist, earned a James Tait Black Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. His novel Freedom (2010) garnered similar praise and led to an appearance on the cover of Time magazine alongside the headline "Great American Novelist".
Franzen has contributed to The New Yorker magazine since 1994. His 1996 Harper's essay Perchance to Dream bemoaned the state of contemporary literature. Oprah Winfrey's book club selection in 2001 of The Corrections led to a much publicized feud with the talk show host. In recent years, Franzen has become recognized for his opinions on everything from social networking services such as Twitter ("What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word?"; "the actual substance of our daily lives is total electronic distraction") to the impermanence of e-books ("All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things, are dying off.") and the self-destruction of America.
Awards and honors
1981 Fulbright Scholarship to Germany
1988 Whiting Award
1996 Guggenheim Fellowship
2000 Berlin Prize (American Academy in Berlin)
2001 National Book Award (Fiction) for The Corrections
2001 Salon Book Award (Fiction) for The Corrections
2002 James Tait Black Memorial Prize winner (Fiction) for The Corrections
2010 Salon Book Award (Fiction) for Freedom
2010 Galaxy National Book Awards, International Author of the Year, Freedom
2011 Heartland Prize for Freedom
2011 John Gardner Award (Fiction) for Freedom[
2012 Carlos Fuentes Medal (Inaugural award)
2015 Budapest Grand Prize
2015 Euronatur Award for outstanding commitment to nature conservation in Europe
2017 Frank Schirrmacher Preis
Honors and other recognition
1996 Granta's Best Of Young American Novelists
2001 New York Times Best Books of the Year for The Corrections
2001 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist (for The Corrections)
2001 Oprah's Book Club Selection (for The Corrections)
2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist (Fiction)
2002 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist
2003 International Dublin Literary Award (short list)
2009 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Visitor American Academy in Berlin
2010 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist (for Freedom)
2010 New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2010 list (for Freedom)
2010 New York Times Best Books of the Year (for Freedom)
2010 Oprah's Book Club selection (for Freedom)
2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Fiction) finalist (for Freedom)
2010 Elected to the Akademie der Kunste, Berlin
2011 Named one of Time Magazine's Time 100
2012 Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters
2012 Elected to the French Ordres des Arts et Lettres
2013 National Book Critics Circle Award (Criticism) shortlist for The Kraus Project
In January 2011, The Observer named him as one of "20 activists, filmmakers, writers, politicians and celebrities who will be setting the global environmental agenda in the coming year".
On May 21, 2011, Franzen delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College to the class of 2011.
On June 16, 2012, Franzen delivered the commencement address at Cowell College, UC Santa Cruz
The first international academic symposium solely dedicated to Franzen's work took place at Glasgow University, UK, 22 March 2013. Another one, "Jonathan Franzen: Identity and Crisis of the American Novel", was scheduled to take place at the University of Córdoba, Spain, 18–19 April 2013.
The novel follows the lives of the Berglund family, particularly the parents Patty and Walter, as their lives develop and then their happiness falls apart. Important to their story is a college friend of Walter's and successful rock musician, Richard Katz, who has a love affair with Patty. Walter and Patty's son, Joey, also goes through his own coming of age challenges.
Franzen began working on the novel in 2001, following his successful novel The Corrections. The title of the novel was an artifact of his book proposal, where he wanted to write a novel that freed him from the constraints of his previous work. The cover of many editions of the novel includes a cerulean warbler, a songbird, for which Walter works to create an environmental preserve.
Freedom won the John Gardner Fiction Award. Additionally, it was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. The American Library Association also named it a notable fiction of the 2010 publishing year.
Oprah Winfrey made Freedom her first book club selection of 2010, saying, "this book is a masterpiece."US President Barack Obama called it "terrific" after reading it over the summer.
t was somewhere around page 158 of Freedom that I managed to forgive the book for not being The Corrections and begin enjoying it for what it is: an ethnography of a particular marriage; a meditation on the disappointments and compromises of approaching and then inhabiting middle age; and a long, juicy, scathing, funny and poignant indictment of contemporary American life. All of which, come to think of it, does sound an awful lot like The Corrections, with Freedom offering the bonus, for those of us tickled by such subject matter, of a scene in which a newly married man accidentally swallows his wedding ring and subsequently finds himself hunched over a toilet bowl in a hotel bathroom, examining his own faeces with his bare hands while a comely woman who isn't his wife impatiently knocks on the door.
One of those novels that arrives loaded down with an absurd amount of baggage, Freedom is a book people are eager to love or hate for reasons mostly unrelated to the words on the pages. Because The Corrections was so successful and acclaimed; because when Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club, Jonathan Franzen allegedly dissed her (though in reality, and I say this as both an Oprah admirer and a Franzen admirer, that's not exactly what happened); because nine long years have elapsed since The Corrections was published; because Franzen is not just White and Male but also Tall and Handsome (albeit, according to a Time magazine article, also Excruciatingly Awkward); because shortly before Freedom's US publication, for that same Time article, Franzen appeared on the magazine's cover, the first novelist to do so since Stephen King 10 years ago. Amid such cultural static, it can be hard to focus on the facts of the book itself – its characters and plot and language – which is, appropriately enough, one of Freedom's concerns: how to find meaning in a world of cheap distractions.
Franzen kicks off with a sort of panoramic introduction to Walter and Patty Berglund as seen through the eyes of their neighbours in the gentrifying section of St Paul, Minnesota, where the couple have lived and raised their two children for close to 20 years. The Berglunds are earnest and socially conscious and admirable; they are annoying and judgmental and self-congratulatory. The implosion of their pleasant existence starts, but doesn't conclude, when their smug, smart and decidedly underage son Joey begins sleeping with the slightly older girl next door.
After this introduction, we spin off in several directions, first encountering a 160-page unpublished memoir Patty has written, in the third person, at the behest of her therapist. Via the memoir, we travel back in time to Patty's privileged but unhappily complicated childhood and adolescence in a suburb of New York; her college years as a basketball star and her blossoming relationship not only with Walter but also with his rock musician best friend Richard Katz, a man whose acerbic misanthropy serves as a counterpoint to Walter's calm kindness. Patty's memoir concludes with a cataclysmic betrayal of Walter, after which she follows him from Minnesota to his new job in Washington, DC.
We then enter a new section of rotating close third person perspectives – Richard's, Joey's and Walter's – set in or shortly before 2004. These overlapping and progressing narratives carry us through the bulk of the novel, until an addendum to Patty's memoir appears – it is by this point 2010 – followed by another marital panorama, through the eyes of yet another set of post-DC neighbours, that bookends our first introduction to the Berglunds.
If such a structure sounds confusing, it's not. It allows for tantalising foreshadowing and cliffhangers in which one character's story is interrupted just as something terrible or delicious or deliciously terrible is about to occur. It offers the pleasure of experiencing the same scene from different perspectives and thereby seeing it with fresh significance. And all along, Franzen's strengths as a writer are on giddy and unapologetic display: his superb facility for writing dialogue; his willingness to be shockingly, entertainingly dirty on matters of sex; and his terrific and terrifying sense of humour, which makes it impossible to read his vivisections of people's flaws and delusions without anxiously imagining what short work he could make of you and pretty much everyone you care about. Of a chubby high school girl: "She was like a walking advertisement of the late-model parenting she'd received: You have permission to ask for things! Just because you aren't pretty doesn't mean you don't!" Or, when a more attractive middle-aged woman (alas, a disproportionate number of Franzen's scathing observations do seem to be about females) tells the newly famous musician Richard Katz that she's not a fan of his early work: "Then she waited, with parted lips and a saucy challenge in her eyes, to see how her presence – the drama of being her – was registering. In the way of such chicks, she seemed convinced of the originality of her provocation. Katz had encountered, practically verbatim, the same provocation a hundred times before, which put him in the ridiculous position now of feeling bad for being unable to pretend to be provoked: of pitying Lucy's doughty little ego, its flotation on a sea of aging-female insecurity."
As it happens, I found it difficult not to see Richard Katz as a stand-in for Franzen himself: an artist whose efforts are for 20 years met with critical acclaim and commercial silence, until, in 2001 (also, ahem, the year The Corrections came out), he produces a huge hit whose popularity and attendant widespread adulation make him squirming and scornful. Katz is the book's best character, an unrepentant speaker of truths, and perhaps it goes without saying that the possible parallels between him and the author only make him more intriguing.
And yet, if I enjoyed all of Freedom, I can't say I was persuaded by all of it. What I was least persuaded by was the character of Patty. In part, the Patty problem arises because of how powerful the introduction to the Berglunds is, an introduction that defines Patty, wholly plausibly, as a specific and familiar type: "She might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint, and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street."
If the point of view of this early section can be attached to any individual character, it's that of the Berglunds' merciless neighbour Merrie Paulsen, "who was 10 years older than Patty and looked every year of it." Merrie thinks that Patty's "supposed neighbourliness... was all just regressive housewifely bullshit, and, frankly, in Merrie's opinion, if you were to scratch below the nicey-nice surface you might be surprised to find something rather hard and selfish and competitive and Reaganite in Patty; it was obvious that the only things that mattered to her were her children and her house – not her neighbours, not the poor, not her country, not her parents, not even her own husband."
If Merrie is to be believed, and to me she is, then Patty is a not particularly likeable force of nature, which is to say a person I'd be happy to read about for hundreds of pages. But the Patty we encounter in her own memoir, and in the subsequent scenes focused on other characters, is weak and pathetic, a woman adrift in her own life to the point of not seeming fully developed as a character. We see little of her as the zealous mother she apparently was during her children's youth and instead follow her mostly after she's thrown in the towel on mothering and, seemingly, on much else. Yet even before adulthood has broken her, in the passages when she is a college student, she is tossed and blown by the whims of others: whether in forming an intense friendship with a girl because that girl is obsessed with Patty but not because Patty reciprocates any real fondness, or in ending up with Walter mostly because she's not sure what else to do after his friend rejects her. The males in Patty's life frequently remark on how interesting and funny she is, but I didn't find her much of either, which was notable in a book that's interesting and funny on just about every page.
If my primary criticism of Freedom concerns Patty, my secondary one centres around a death that feels incompatible with the book's tone as well as overly convenient in serving the plot. I also found some of the social commentary, as voiced by various characters, a bit self-important and lengthy, if depressingly apt. But that's it: I didn't buy one of the characters, I didn't buy one of the plot twists, I found the stuff about a Halliburton-esque company rather convoluted and I was completely absorbed by the rest. Without question, Freedom is a book that grabs hold of you. When I was in the middle, I thought of its characters even while I wasn't reading about them, and when I was reading it, I read several lines aloud to my husband.
If you loved The Corrections as much as I did, then cracking open Freedom is a bit like returning to a restaurant where you had an outstanding meal. Your expectations may be high, but it's still possible to come away feeling satisfied – and if we're lucky, perhaps we'll all eat there again before another nine years go by.
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