What Have We Done With Our Freedom, Anyway?

Book Review: “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen

There’s something satisfying about the fact that Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom is currently the #3 best selling hardcover fiction book in the U.S., according to the New York Times. Franzen spent ten years writing Freedom and the result is not just an extraordinary piece of literature but an often unflattering snapshot of twenty-first century American values. He indulges his view of politics, the economy and capitalism through both main and minor characters in this fast-paced but gracefully-written novel. He communicates his view of the world through pages of diatribe about the destruction of natural resources, corrupt capitalistic greed and overpopulation’s culpability in just about everything that’s wrong with the world. Knowing that this is a book that people are perhaps recommending to each other enough to sell that many copies makes me feel less anxious about the current state of environmentalism in this country. If this book is flying off the book shelves and Franzen is being hailed as “The Great American Novelist” on the cover of Time Magazine, it must be making a lot of people feel good, or at least, validated. And that could mean that a lot of people at least agree with what Franzen is trying to say through the characters in this book, particularly through the protagonist Walter Berglund.

Walter is a lawyer who manages a trust for the protection of a little blue songbird. Walter, a naïve-idealist-turned-angry-activist, likes to believe he sees the dark truth behind everyone’s motives, except he fails to see the motives of those closest to him. He is an imperfect Good Guy who rides his bicycle to work, disciplines his kids by the book, is devoted to his wife and has no sins except perhaps contempt for those who don’t share his world view, and a concealed longing for his beautiful young assistant. He is always trying to do the right thing, something that is for the common good, not just for the good of one person, one corporation or one species. His lifelong vocation is to convince the world’s young people that overpopulation is killing the planet and that the only way to preserve the beauty and diversity of Earth is to limit how early and how often they procreate. He wants to make wanting less more cool.

Walter and his best friend since college, the self-centered but charismatic musician Richard Katz, are like Cain and Abel. They don’t know why they have remained friends for as long as they have, or why they’re so drawn to each other, being that they’re so different both ideologically and otherwise. Perhaps it’s because they each crave the qualities so lacking in the other: the way productivity craves irresponsibility, intellectualism craves creativity, stability craves passion. Their relationship completes them in this way. And yet, like the biblical story of the Good and Bad Brother that’s wrought with jealousy and competitiveness, one ends up ultimately betraying the other.

In fact, almost all the characters in this book are faced with one kind of moral and ethical dilemma after another. Should I cheat on my spouse? Should I go for the money or for the honor? Should I do what feels good to me or what feels good to the one who loves me? Should I betray my best friend or stay true to my heart? Despite what the moral dilemma is, the underlying theme that Franzen seems to be injecting on every page is “self-interest versus the common good”. He is examining the very definition of the word freedom, both personal and political. What does freedom mean to us, but more importantly, what have we done with it, both in our personal lives and as a country? Franzen was recently quoted in an interview:

“There is a vulgar notion of American freedom, according to which people wish to be left alone and they almost say: “Keep out.” There’s this deeply anti-communitarian streak among my fellow countrymen. You see this now with the Tea Party movement, which rejects the notion of a common good.”

My favorite passage in the book is a tense conversation between Walter and a neighbor, whose cat has been killing songbirds by the dozens on his rural property. Walter has spent half his career working to restore songbird habitat, and he knows part of the problem is that millions of birds are killed every year by feral cats or, in this particular case, domestic ones who are allowed to roam freely outdoors. When he sees this happening on his own property, it infuriates him, and he appeals to the cat’s owner, his “Evangelical” neighbor, to put an end to it.

“I know you love your cat. And if he would just stay in your yard, that would be fine. But this land actually belonged to the birds before it belonged to us. And it’s not like there’s any way that we can tell the birds that this is a bad place to try to next. So they keep coming here, and they keep getting killed. And the bigger problem is that they’re running out of space altogether, because there’s more and more development. So it’s important that we try to be responsible stewards to this wonderful land we’ve taken over.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” Linda said, “but my children matter more to me than the children of some bird. I don’t think that’s an extreme position, compared to yours. God gave this world to human beings, and that’s the end of the story as far as I’m concerned.”

In this exchange, I cheer Walter and feel chagrin with the neighbor because she seems so illogical and self-centered. Walter isn’t asking her to harm her children, he’s simply asking her to keep her cat indoors during the summer. Yet, she persists in twisting the logic and thus appears to be completely heartless and unintelligent. To be fair, I don’t get to know what her background is or why she thinks the way she does. I do, however, know Walter’s background and I understand why he’s having this conversation. This brings up something important: That there are two sides to every story, as one of Franzen’s characters likes to believe when he’s unable to explain his motives to his children and it strains his relationship with them. But most of the stories in the book are one-sided. As a matter of fact, at first Franzen seems to pass judgment on certain types of people without examining their side at all, and it’s so blatant you wonder if he isn’t doing it on purpose. All capitalists care about is money, not people or nature. Really? All musicians are womanizers and irresponsible. Always? Evangelicals or conservatives don’t care about the environment. How so?

To further challenge the reader’s sense of fairness, Franzen anoints his characters with various forms of personality disorder: the borderline Eliza, the co-dependent Connie, the narcissistic Joey, the sociopathic Kenny.  These characters are one-dimensional and yet fascinating, attesting to our culture’s propensity to produce such dysfunctional people and our insatiable thirst for the dramatic and peculiar. We want to dislike them but we suspect it’s not their fault. They’ve been damaged or misled by someone or something, and they’re doing the best they can with what they know.

In the end, though, we see the complexity behind the main characters’ motives, and we remember that, of course, no one is truly all good or all bad. Freedom also challenges us to examine our own relationship with that word, and whether looking out for number one, as we are socialized to do in this culture, is really serving us in the long run.