Webster Bull's Reviews > Freedom

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
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Jan 24, 11

Read in January, 2011

There is a moment near the end of Jonathan Franzen’s National Book Award–nominated novel that should be climactic, a doorway to denouement. A central character, Walter Berglund, has a break-down at a press conference. Walter has made a devil's bargain with the coal industry, turning a blind eye to “mountain-top removal” (strip-mining on steroids) in exchange for a small bird sanctuary designed to preserve a single species: the cerulean warbler. Instead of extolling the project, Walter lambastes it. Addressing hill people displaced by the project but redeployed by the parent company, he goes on a rant:

"I want to welcome you all to working for one of the most corrupt and savage corporations in the world! Do you hear me? LBI doesn't give a shit about your sons and daughters bleeding in Iraq, as long as they get their thousand-percent profit!"

Why does this tirade—which continues long after Walter's mic has been shut off and in almost any other narrative would be cathartic—feel so empty? Why, as the reader, do I absolutely not care about Walter or the displaced people or the cerulean warbler? Arriving near the end of the novel, I cared only about the percentage-read statistic at the bottom of my Kindle, as in, When would this interminable narrative end?

Franzen gives us a sprawling dysfunctional family but one the reader can't finally care about. Reading Freedom is like watching a reality TV show that trains its lens on a terrorist cell without an objective. Their conscience in tatters, Franzen's characters don't even have a building to blow up.

For my money, Freedom compares unfavorably with Franzen’s 2001 National Book Award–winner, The Corrections. That novel also concerned a dysfunctional Midwestern family, Alfred and Enid Lambert, and their three children, the alcoholic Gary, the Marxist Chip, and the bisexual foodie Denise. But its focus on these five characters, each beautifully drawn, gives The Corrections an intensity that the meandering Freedom lacks. And The Corrections contains a climactic scene, involving a heart drawn on the bottom of a bench, that is as revelatory as it is moving.

Like Freedom, The Corrections has a title that seems like a label slapped on for coherence. In the first chapter of the earlier book, corrections refers to edits Chip needs to make on his screenplay. Somewhere in the middle, it refers to the efforts of a younger generation to correct the faults of an older. In the final chapter, it refers variously to a financial meltdown and Enid's last-ditch efforts to correct Alfred—after he has become demented.

While reading Freedom I highlighted every use of the word freedom, and came up with plenty of nothing. For the record, Franzen uses the word 31 times. If you see a pattern of use, a summary statement one could make about freedom based on reading the novel, please let me know.

The Corrections contains only one subplot that seems wacky for the sake of wackiness, when Chip's dash to his agent's office to retrieve his screenplay lands him in Lithuania writing Web copy for a titanic con job. Freedom is filled with such subplots but no characters to care about. For this reason, it tickled my funny bone but moved no other part of me.
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Webster Bull Nearing the end of Freedom and still looking for a really good reason to read it.


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