The myths of Freedom

Many reviewers are championing Jonathan Franzen's new book as the "great American novel," but it presents a rather limited and stereotypical view of the world.

REVIEWS OF Jonathan Franzen's best selling novel Freedom have been overwhelmingly positive: the author has been compared to Tolstoy and Dickens, and the novel has been called a "masterpiece of American fiction" a "work of total genius" and "the novel of the year and the century."

Columnist: Helen Scott

Helen Scott Helen Scott teaches postcolonial studies at the University of Vermont. She is editor of The Essential Rosa Luxemburg, newly published by Haymarket Books, and is a frequent contributor to the International Socialist Review.

There have been some negative voices. David Brooks in the New York Times calls it a "brilliantly written book that is nonetheless trapped in an intellectual cul de sac--overly gimlet-eyed about American life and lacking an alternative vision of higher ground."

Brooks continues: "There's almost no religion. There's very little about the world of work and enterprise. There's an absence of ethnic heritage, military service, technical innovation, scientific research or anything else potentially lofty and ennobling."

Brooks doesn't like the novel because it exposes these "lofty and ennobling" aspects of the American Dream as a sham. Freedom presents the emptiness of middle class American life, the stultifying pressures of the nuclear family, and the vile hypocrisy of the post-9/11 Bush years. It addresses, in Franzen's words, "the ironies swirling around the word 'freedom,' which was turned into a propaganda slogan for the Republican Party in the years when the book was being composed."

Review: Books

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom: A Novel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, 576 pages, $28.

Along the way Freedom contains some satisfying satirizing of Zionist hawks, Halliburton-like military contractors, the corrupt "get rich quick schemes" of neo-conservative war-mongers, the voracious destruction of the environment in the name of profit.

These global issues are subordinate to the central plot, which is a tale of the middle-class marriage of Walter and Patty Berglund, who meet at college, marry and have children, confront disappointments and infidelities, and approach old age. While some reviewers have called the novel a realist epic which illuminates our world, it has to be said that this is a very small world, where the main characters are white, wealthy, American and extraordinarily self-absorbed.

They spend a lot of time obsessing about sex and relationships, and very little time worrying about the things that most people have to deal with--unemployment, pressures at work, finding the money to pay bills, battling with health insurance companies. The problem for these people, the novel suggests, is too much freedom, which wouldn't rank very high on the complaint list of most Americans.

I'm not suggesting that fiction should take on such issues. Domestic novels can capture the details of daily life, the joys of good food, wine, sex, connections with friends, art, culture, as well as the traumas of pain and loss. But nobody in Freedom ever enjoys anything. At one point it is said that Walter "didn't know what to do, he didn't know how to live." This applies to everyone else in the novel, and after a while it becomes claustrophobic to keep reading about them.

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THERE IS a striking lack of emotional force, even around big personal issues--aging, bereavement, love and desire. The characters do not grow or change in any significant ways: Patty and Walter in their 40s are as self-involved as they were in their 20s. And for a book that is in part about generational shifts, the young characters are strangely indistinguishable from those in their middle and old age.

We don't get to know many poor people or working-class people, but when we do they are portrayed as right-wing bigots, in contrast to the liberal Berglunds.

Walter is passionately concerned about environmental destruction, and launches a campaign around conservation with a young woman called Lalitha.

Their politics are utterly bankrupt. In the name of pragmatism, Walter agrees to a deal with the devil, sanctioning a coal corporation's mountain top removal in return for a bird sanctuary in West Virginia.

Walter loves songbirds more than he loves people: as he sees it, the main problem with the world is overpopulation. Lalitha was converted to the same view after a visit to India, her family's country of origin, where she was horrified by the sight of masses of poor and hungry people, and decided to dedicate her life to population control.

Their political passion is often parodied and mocked--there is a very funny scene when they try to come up with a name for their new "overpopulation initiative" before finally settling on "free space"--but they also are given some ethical weight.

At one point, the radical potential of the younger generation is briefly acknowledged. Walter, medicated and under great personal stress, ignores his carefully prepared speech celebrating the opening of a body armor plant (part of the deal to compensate people displaced by the mountain top removal scheme), and flies off on a Network-style rant against the system. Instead of damaging their new organization, the speech goes viral, and hundreds of inspired young people volunteer to get involved.

While the rant draws connections between militarism, profiteering and environmental destruction, its main focus is overpopulation:

WE ARE ADDING THIRTEEN MILLION HUMAN BEINGS TO THE POPULATION EVERY MONTH! THIRTEEN MILLION MORE PEOPLE TO KILL EACH OTHER IN COMPETITION OVER FINITE RESOURCES! AND WIPE OUT EVERY OTHER LIVING THING ALONG THE WAY! IT IS A PERFECT FUCKING WORLD AS LONG AS YOU DON'T COUNT EVERY OTHER SPECIES IN IT! WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET! A CANCER ON THE PLANET!

The working-class audience attacks Walter, supposedly from a right-wing perspective (because, remember, workers are pro-war and don't care about the environment). But Walter's ideas are never challenged.

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AND YET, they are utterly unfounded. In fact, the rate of world population growth has been dropping since the 1960s, and many regions of the world are experiencing population decline. While hunger is a brutal reality for about a sixth of the world's people, there is no correlation between population density and hunger, and furthermore, enough food is produced to feed everyone in the world, as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization repeatedly reports.

The cause of poverty and hunger is not too many people, but a global capitalist system that puts profit before need, that keeps masses of people poor and unemployed, and that wastes and destroys staggering amounts of food.

The only person who acknowledges this is Rick Katz, the third party in the central love triangle, the misogynist rock star "bad boy" foil to Walter's caring "new man" (the tired subtext being that women prefer men who treat them badly). Rick tells Walter and Lalitha that the problem is systemic: "the whole point of capitalism is the restless growth of capital" and "Capitalism can't handle talking about limits."

But his comments are equated with despair, and never become an alternative to the Malthusian orthodoxy.

Again, I am not suggesting that novels should provide political answers, but in a novel that is at least partly about political alternatives, it is striking that the only fully articulated position is the overpopulation myth.

This subplot is ultimately subordinate to the central personal story, and, without wanting to give too much detail, I found the ending, referred to as "redemptive" by many critics, both depressingly conventional and unconvincing. That the one woman of color, Lalitha, exists only as a plot device is particularly disappointing.

Freedom does capture something of the ennui, guilt, angst and paranoia of middle-class America in the 2000s, but it doesn't move outside, or reach beyond, the limits of the insular world it dislikes.

Novel of the world, or of the century, it is not.