Freedom: The “Great American Novelist” Tackles the Ultimate American Yearning

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, asks us the cost of being free and reflects the voice of an American rock & roll legend.

I have no idea if Jonathan Franzen listens to Bruce Springsteen much. His writing, though, has a very Springsteen-esque lean to it.

Springsteen, at his best, was the voice of muscle cars, open roads, anxious youth and chained-up maturity. He became the artistic face of the American middle class, of the 70’s & 80’s, a group struggling to maintain its existence in the face of rising energy costs, dwindling salaries, brawls for a taste at the tit of trickle-down economics as well as its blue-collar jobs pulling stake and heading to alternate countries.

Franzen, meanwhile, has become arguably the literary voice of a generation of Americans comfortable yet struggling to find happiness, a group battling to overcome strained personal relationships, American entitlement, and mass-media bombardment.

At their core both Springsteen and Franzen ask the question. It is wrapped around their words. What is freedom and how does one find it?

Freedom, in a country founded on its principles, should be easy to locate. It should be a Maine lighthouse to a yawing ship and the blazing neon Las Vegas sun to a red-eye pilot. But as Springsteen belts across stadiums in a booming voice, and Franzen has captured so eloquently in his novel, the quest of freedom can be elusive, like the Fountain of Youth or Montezuma’s gold or, in the case of Springsteen, trying to locate it in “the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets.”

Like Springsteen, Franzen became a cultural phenomenon when he graced the cover of Time magazine in August of 2010. It was Born to Run that propelled Springsteen to Newsweek and Time cover boy in 1975. It was The Corrections and Freedom that landed Franzen similarly on the cover of Time, where the magazine boasted him as the “Great American Novelist.” The Corrections was the winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 2001.

As Springsteen once did, Franzen has seemed to shy away from his celebrity. He admittedly doesn’t read his own press, after an apparently unfortunate personal “Google-ing” experience in 2001.

Franzen also had a well-publicized and over-exaggerated “feud” with Oprah Winfrey. When Winfrey offered The Corrections for her book club, Franzen publicly suggested that her seal might brand him as unreadable to a male audience. In response, Winfrey pulled his book from her club, and her legion of followers were left siding with their queen. Later, Freedom would be an Oprah Book Club selection, suggesting the two moved past the unfortunate and media-fueled “feud.”

Freedom was Franzen’s follow-up to The Corrections and it took him nine years to publish it following his breakout success. The novel came in the wake of the suicide of one of his close friends, fellow writer, and professional competitor, David Foster Wallace.

In Freedom, we seem to see a lot of Wallace. Pieces of Wallace litter Freedom, including in Richard Katz, one of the pivotal characters. Katz and Walter Berglund are best friends but are always competing against each other, at least inside themselves. I would imagine Wallace and Franzen’s relationship was similar. Although extremely close, the two writers were fueled by each other professionally, which I would imagine created a very interesting love and bond between the two, which ended quite suddenly, in 2008, when a bout of depression was too much for Wallace to handle. Franzen took up his old friend’s habit of chewing tobacco after Wallace’s death, and even bequeathed the trait to Katz, a rock star, in Freedom.

Franzen is seen by some as an elitist, and his writing is seen by some as just an extension of that. They see his extremely negative essays towards current cultural phenomena such as Twitter as just another novelist out of touch and dreaming of a bygone era. It doesn’t help that a well-recognized periodical labeled him a saving grace of a medium struggling to survive in a world that no longer seems to need it.

Maybe Franzen isn’t the “Great American Novelist,” but his steady voice is necessary in a world where people would rather text than talk and send friend requests rather than meet over coffee or dinner. That’s where Freedom takes us. Not to a world where modern technology has completely changed the way we communicate and interact with each other, but to a place where we push the ones we love away in our own selfish desires.

Freedom follows the seemingly idyllic Berglund family through a quiet suburban genesis that slowly begins to unravel. Much of the novel takes place in post-9/11 America, where the word “freedom” was used very liberally by both conservative and liberal Americans. The generation’s two greatest conflicts were memorably coined “Operation Enduring Freedom” and “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” It’s not a political book however, but it does touch on the angst of the time. Freedom reads like breezy beach novel, but it drips with sex, betrayal, heartbreak, addiction, and American capitalism.

Franzen writes simply but eloquently. The story moves well, but the story is only supporting the characters. That’s where Franzen stands out. He creates unforgettable characters and he embeds them with witty dialogue both externally and internally.

There is no reason why we should spend over 500 pages carrying about the Bergland family. But we do because we become invested in their future. We are introduced to the Bergland’s as an outsider, as if we are reading a neighborhood newspaper column about the family. Then we are given a historical diary of the clan courtesy of Patty Bergland. Then each wonderfully ornate character adds his or her opus. In the end we care what happens to Berglands because Franzen has made us care. He doesn’t force us to. We do it of our volition, and that is because of Franzen’s prose.

Freedom is never free. It always has a cost, and sometimes the cost of freedom is greater than the reward. Freedom is exactly what it says in the title. It’s as good as advertised. What is freedom? Is it faithfulness or the gratification of a feeling of longing, is it love or is it pain, is it family or is it isolation? We build walls. We build walls around our hearts and around our relationships and as soon as we have finished erecting them, we begin to feel trapped. So we tear them down. When these walls are no longer anything but ashes, we wish desperately to have them back. That’s because the walls and relationships we have destroyed out of our desperation to find freedom – they once gave us safety. Now they no longer do. Now we are alone and vulnerable. In a moment of seduction, in an instant when opportunity trumps common-sense, when temptation trumps loyalty, we scorch the earth beneath our feet and the hard work of everything that time and love has built crumbles like sand between our fingers.

Is freedom Richard Katz? Is it a rock star with a wild libido who attempts to find freedom in the warm embrace of sex? Is it Patty Berglund who searches for it first in her husband, then her son and finally in her betrayal? Is it Walter Berglund who seeks it fully in his wife and his extreme passion for the environment? Or is it Joey Berglund who seeks it by separating himself from his father, than his mother and finally from a young woman who desperately loves him?

Why should we care about a normal family from Minnesota, especially in our self-gratifying society today? Maybe because the Berglund’s remind us of us.

In Joey, we see our childhood rebellion. In Katz, we see our amorous yearning for youth and glory. In Walter we see our devotions and in Patty we see our betrayals.

Freedom is the ultimate human search, it is an endless quest. It is that most evasive of feelings. Can we ever truly have freedom? Maybe we can’t? Or maybe we have always been free, we just can’t recognize it until it’s too late.

As I read Freedom I thought back to Bruce Springsteen’s “Cautious Man”. In the song, which appears on Springsteen’s 1987 Tunnel of Love album, Springsteen introduces us to Bill Horton, “a cautious man of the road.” He has the words “love and fear” tattooed across the knuckles of hands, one word on each, and “in which hand held his fate was never clear.” He meets a young woman and marries her. Yet in their bed he soon feels “the seeds of betrayal.” He goes for a walk where he no longer finds the comfort that he once did, but now “he finds nothing but road.” So he returns to his love where he bathes in “God’s falling light.”

When I first heard the song, I thought of it as a ballad of pain and heartbreak. I saw Bill Horton walking away from the betrayal. As I read Freedom, and listened to Springsteen’s song more clearly, I realized that Bill Horton no longer found his freedom on the road, but in the arms of his betrothed. I saw that Horton was willing to risk his fear for love. His fate was not held in one hand, but both. I saw in both Springsteen’s and Franzen’s words that we can seek freedom on the road, distancing ourselves from potential pain. Many have found freedom through escape. What I have come to learn is that maybe the greatest freedom of all is found only when we wrap our two hands, those tattooed with “love” and “fear,” around another.

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