‘Freedom’ novel ‘bears guilt of entire generation’

In two books, 2001’s “The Corrections” and now “Freedom,” author Jonathan Franzen has seemingly set out to dissect the modern American family. 

 Time will only tell whether he has succeeded in this lofty goal, but let it not be said that he hasn’t contributed some truly remarkable works to the genre of contemporary America literature. 

“Freedom,” a near-600 page behemoth of a book with the pace, urgency and direction of an out-of-control freight train, is no exception. 

Spanning multiple decades and encompassing key questions that define two different generations, the book is an example of the lingering power of literature to remain relevant in the 21st century.

Like “The Corrections,” the critically acclaimed and controversial novel that got him noticed nine years ago, “Freedom” turns a critical eye on an American family.

 In this case, the Berglunds are a seemingly stereotypical liberal, middle-class family. 

The book starts out mysteriously, presenting an eerily idyllic portrait of the Berglund family as reported by neighbors while hinting at the problems that lie just beneath the surface. 

Like the great works in literature, “Freedom” is framed around somewhat unsolvable questions. 

How did people who appeared one way end up an entirely different way? Why do people change over time? How much influence do people have on their own paths in life? 

In an effort to answer these questions, Franzen focuses on four main characters in and around the Berglund family: Walter Berglund, the father and an avid environmentalist; Patty Berglund, his wife and a former college athlete plagued by indecision and regret; Joey, their bizarrely independent son; and Richard Katz, an independent musician and Walter’s best friend.

The plot is indescribable in a brief review; unlike “The Corrections,” which, scattered though it was, aimed toward an inevitable end point, “Freedom” is much more ambitious in its reach.

Suffice to say, the novel describes the various troubles that occur in the characters’ relationships with each other, both romantic and ideological, all told against the backdrop of definitive periods in America’s recent history. 

Beginning in the latter two decades of the 20th century, the novel eventually settles on the economic and political turmoil of American society since 9/11.

Franzen never lets his lofty socio-critical ambitions get in the way of producing a deeply character-driven novel, and the result is a nostalgic but refreshingly modern novel that clearly bears the guilt of an entire generation on its shoulders. 

Its characters are all haunted products of modernity, some worse off than others, but each bears the scars of his or her respective upbringing. 

The characters Walter and Patty are Franzen’s window into the generation on its way out of influence, bewildered by the incoming generation and its obsession with money, status and sex. 

The generational divide Franzen explores is poignantly rendered in the turbulent relationship between the liberal Walter and his increasingly capitalist and conservative son, Joey. 

Franzen’s writing style is anything but flashy; each character has his or her own voice and holds his or her portion of the story with ease. 

However, as is to be expected with such an outspoken personality as Franzen, one can’t help feeling that his own personal beliefs come through the pages a little too obviously. 

This becomes painfully clear in several long stretches of dialogue that dwell too long on ideologies such as conservation, political parties, the inner workings of investment, underground music and Chiclets while letting the characters speaking slip away for the moment.

Given the blatant similarities to “The Corrections,” which also dissected a seemingly average, American, middle-class family, one might be surprised that the most effective aspect of this particular familial saga isn’t the anger and heartache that develop between the characters throughout, but the underlying hope that pervades the entire novel. 

The main characters all appear unlikable at some point in the novel, but through all of it Franzen never lets the reader’s sympathy for their individual plights die. 

Despite passages of painful and well-written domestic quarrels, Franzen undercuts the entire novel with an air of hopefulness, with each character making significant strides toward maturity and stability throughout. 

There may very well be no book out there currently that taps into the generational difficulty America is currently experiencing better than this one. 

The nine years Franzen spent writing it clearly were not put to waste, as he captures the cultural zeitgeist of decade that has challenged so many people, both young and middle aged. 

Put simply, every author attempting to channel some aspect of the contemporary experience has quite a challenge ahead of them, because the definitive book of this decade may have already been released.