I really, really, really
wanted to like Freedom
. It's like when your favourite club has made it to the final game of the World Cup, but deep down inside you know that Spain has the edge; then when Spain ends up winning, you're confronted with the grim satisfaction of knowing that you knew
who would win, but also with the heartbreak of seeing Netherlands leave the pitch with nothing to show for their efforts.
To be fair, Franzen tries very hard, and it's evident. Many of the same tricks from The Corrections
are at work again: dysfunctional families, pursuit of the American dream, socio-economics playing a huge role in how children grow up, become adults and repeat the mistakes of their parents. In fact, it's hard to read Freedom
without comparing it to The Corrections
, which is unfortunate because the latter is much better. Franzen's prose in Freedom
can be a bit dodgy at times and the story is weird in a far-out sort of way — at times Walter felt more like a caricature of a left-leaning environmentalist than a real person. One thing Freedom
inherits from The Corrections
— unfortunately so — is Franzen's desperate attempts at closure in the final few pages. It's as if he spends 500 pages tearing his characters apart in cruel and unusual fashion, only to flimsily glue them back together with his awkward idea of closure. It's what bothered me most about The Corrections
, and it certainly didn't score any points here either.
The book is called Freedom
, but strangely enough I don't think Franzen gets the title quite right. The characters certainly don't experience much freedom in their lives. (Even Joey, perhaps the most independent of the Berglunds, isn't 'free' enough to tell his own parents about major events in his life.) And I don't think the title is ironic (although maybe it is); Franzen's closure tries to point to some ultimately satisfying redemption where 'freedom' is synonymous with 'contentment'. The only thing most of the characters seem truly free to do is to have sex, and lots of it. And while sex can be an interesting plot device, it's pretty squicky here. (I'll never be able to see a personal administrative assistant in the same light. Thanks.)
There's a pivotal passage about midway through the book where Joey is dining with his roommate Jonathan and his family. Jonathan's father claims that freedom is a hassle, a pain in the neck. The idea is that putting up with the consequences of others' freedom can be extremely frustrating. But he's dead wrong. Freedom is the ability to do the right thing, not the ability to do whatever one wants. Sure, the dictionary disagrees with me. But what good is freedom if you end up making the wrong decisions anyway? Is it merely an intellectual prop-up, a mental stimulant?
Franzen's characters are once again deep and nuanced, but they seem to make all the wrong choices, and that means I don't think they're really free at all. Thus while the Freedom
the book is good, Freedom
the title misses the mark.