Monday, May 23, 2011

Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom"--the Liberal as Crank and Tolstoy

May 23, 2011, 9:42 am
Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom celebrates the middle class liberal as environmentalist crank in a novel that is a bad imitation of Tolstoy's War and Peace.

In his novel Franzen did write some very good parts about his heroine Patty's college years in the 1970s and has created a memorable character in punk rock musician Richard Katz. The middle section were quite good focusing on the triangle of Walter Berglund, his wife Patty, and his best friend Richard; these sections follow the trio from college to mid-life crises in their 40s showing how two best male friends always compete for decades including competing for the same woman Patty. This reader always looked forward to Katz's reappearance for his honesty. As Katz disappeared at p. 381 the rest of the novel was tedious.

At one point Patty, trying to get into bed with Richard, is reading Tolstoy's War and Peace, and Franzen thinks his novel in some way is the big realist novel--562 pp.--like Tolstoy's big novel. Patty when 1st reading the novel gets "mired in a military section" but as she continues, she reads where 16-year old Natasha Rostov falls in love with Prince Andrei and now Patty even read's the "military stuff." After reading this, she sleepwalks her way into Richard Katz's bed—War and Peace as aphrodisiac! War and Peace as simpleminded romance! Patty even calls her husband Pierre, the hero of War and Peace.

The military stuff is to me the best parts of War and Peace. Tolstoy had been a soldier in the Crimean war and knew war, describes how the French invasion of Russia bring liberty, equality, and fraternity through their bayonets. The war chapters show how French reach Moscow, how the Russians fled, how the French looted Moscow. Shades of Baghdad! Actually, the Iraq War comes up in Freedom as Walter’s son goes Republican, works for right-wing think tanks, and rakes in a small fortune selling defective truck parts to the U.S. army in Iraq.

At the end of Tolstoy's novel, the once bumbling Pierre has been a prisoner of war of the French, had a spiritual awakening where he learns from a poor Russian peasant, gotten his freedom, and is plotting with his aristocratic friends for the Decembrist Revolution, the 1st great revolution to bring a democracy to Russia—it failed, of course. Pierre has become a citizen or would-be citizen of a democracy he hopes to create.

In contrast, Franzen's freedom is not creating a democracy but freedom from delusions or from adolescent neurosis. The modern Pierre or Walter has gotten a job in Washington D.C. working for a Texas billionaire to make a bird preserve which involved making deals with coal companies so they could do mountaintop removal. The novel seemed to be at this point an interesting satire of Big Green—liberal honchos who wind up doing more harm than good through political dealing. At novel's end Walter is free of his delusions that he can collude with coal companies to save birds—one version of freedom for Franzen. Walter’s son is free of his delusion of making millions by selling defective truck parts to the U.S. army.

Both Walter and Patty are portrayed as having miserable adolescences and having miserable parents, but by novel’s end Patty reconciles with her dying father, forgives her mother, and is free in this paean to banal Freudianism. At novel’s end free Patty is able to heal all the family feuds, help sell her grandfather’s estate, and get $75,000. Franzen’s main characters at the end come up smiling roses—free at last of neurosis or delusions about making the quick buck yet they are still in the cash.

At the novel’s end Walter is back at his mother's place on Nameless Lake hating his working class neighbor who loves her cat which eats birds. Walter and Patty take their most drastic action actions against these working louts: in chapter 1 Patty slashes the tires of a working class neighbor for cutting down the trees in his backyard to build a den and in the novel's end Walter kidnaps the bird-eating cat. It seems a crime in Franzenland to love one's cat or to build a den in one’s backyard. Tolstoy, in contrast, was obsessed with bringing equality to Russia and renounced his priviledges as an aristocrat.

Walter’s great crusade besides birds is for zero population growth and the novel is full of his tedious rants that too many poor people having too many babies destroy the environment. So Walter goes to war not against coal companies but against poor for having babies. In many ways Walter resembles the coal companies in attacking the poor. While the coal companies are simply greedy, Walter has a neurotic view of Nature as pristine and pure hopefully unsullied by anything as messy as humans, particularly poor humans. While Walter rants against the poor, Tolstoy celebrates what Pierre learns as a prisoner of war from another poor prisoner.

Unlike Patty, Walter never seems to heal his adolescent neurosis, and at novel’s end Walter has never forgiven his older brother Mitch for adolescent torments now goes to see Mitch who is jobless and homeless. Walter decides not to offer Mitch the vacant family house because Walter and his girlfriend—both well-heeled urban professionals—might want to live there. Franzen in a novel seemingly celebrating family and devoted to family has Walter neglect his own family in need.

Also Walter seems focused on his anti-cat crusade as two of his neighbors on Nameless Lake are foreclosed. It’s the lout neighbors who help the two families in want, not Walter obsessed with birds. Walter comes off as an elitist anti-human crank who cares nothing about his neighbors having economic problems in the Big Recession. If you want to read a book with a big heart, read War and Peace.

1 comment:

Leigh said...

Hello, Julia-

I am an English teacher in Texas, and I have a student who would like to read one of your poems for an oral interpretation competition. The only stipulation is that the poet has to be born after 1960. We are having fits trying to find your birthday online. It would be greatly appreciated if you would (please!) email me at We have to turn in verification ASAP, and an email works as proof, if you are born after 1960.

Thank you!
Leigh Gibson
High Island, Texas