Home > Culture, Literature, Reviews > “Free Markets Foster Competition”: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Contemporary America

“Free Markets Foster Competition”: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Contemporary America

As a writer who produces approximately one novel per decade, Jonathan Franzen’s habit of shoehorning as much of the character and soul of his age into his dramatic spurts of inescapable fiction is perhaps understandable. That doesn’t mean that it’s forgivable or even terribly natural, mind you. As emotionally and intellectually involving (and involved) as his well-structured, character-driven narratives are in both The Corrections (his National Book Award winner in 2001) and his latest, the much-debated Freedom, there are times when the social critic in Franzen leaps to the fore, filling his character’s imagined mouths with witty yet stilted observations on the fading obsessions of American middle-class life. Franzen’s characters never seem less like themselves than when they’re acting as their creator’s mouthpieces on any number of subjects: pop music (“It was always wintergreen Chiclets, we just enjoyed pretending otherwise”), the 2001 New York Yankees (“This is the one year you kind of want them to win anyway. It’s a patriotic sacrifice we all have to make for New York”), the looting of Iraq’s National Museum after the fall of Baghdad (“Shit happens, right?”), cats (“the sociopaths of the pet world”), and the list goes on.

I begin with this criticism of Freedom because, honestly, it’s about the only substantial one that I can fathom. This is a bit of a miraculous book, really. A thrilling page-turner full of meaty ideas, a very funny book that can also be remarkable affecting, a freewheeling creative force that is grounded in moral conviction. It’s rendered with tremendous style and energy, but can effortlessly pause for lovely descriptions and worm-turning neurotic self-examinations. It can summon roughly equivalent depths of interest in mountaintop-removal mining, songbird migration patterns, the psyche of basketball players, and the treachery of private defense contractors. It’s a novel of contemporary America, and it tries its darndest to cover all of that sublime, complex mess of a nation.

Franzen embeds a few self-conscious references to War and Peace, a work that’s clearly supposed to be a touchstone of sorts if not an outright self-aggrandizing comparison. But he has more in common with an Austen or a Forster than with Tolstoy; all of these writers examine their characters from all angles and dimensions, but Franzen, like the first two, comes out of these examinations feeling deeply amused at their human foibles. Even as he strives for Tolstoy’s panoramic scope of social detail and in-born romanticism, he can’t hope to approach the Count’s boundless magnanimity, his practically impossible fairness. As critical epithets go, however, “Not quite as good as Tolstoy” is hardly an unwelcome pronouncement.

Ultimately, one can only compare Franzen to himself. Like The Corrections, Freedom is a profoundly modern novel, absorbed in modern expression and neuroses, wholly sunk into the quicksand culture of privileged-class post-capitalism. Its main four characters, while convincingly whole people, are also synechdoches for various aspects of that culture. Self-involved, inscrutable independent rock icon Richard Katz represents the creative class, a bundle of briefly-formed thoughts, effortless hipness and irresistible sexuality that strives towards a moral centre that he can never quite reach (and, probably, he would lose his veneer of cool if he ever did). Patty and Walter Berglund are two sides of the liberal upper-middle-class: Patty, once an elite college athlete, is all sharp corners and suddenly yawning precipices, prone to self-pity, depression, false pretenses, and galloping neuroses; Walter is rational, sensible, respectable social conscious personified, but his overwhelming, responsible goodness is a bulkhead that holds in dissatisfaction, snobbery, misanthropy, and outright rage.

They are, respectively, the id and the ego of the counter-intuitive force for good that is liberal guilt. Patty and Walter are defined both by their reactionary breaks from the personalities and values of their parents and, more fundamentally, by their resemblances to their parents. Their own kids, Jessica (who gets the short end of the stick here) and assured, business-savvy Joey (the fourth-stringer behind the main triangle), mirror this. But the turbulent mutual love and admiration between Richard, Walter, and Patty defines, in a symbolic way, the alliances of convenience and grudging fondness that have characterized the finest social, political, and cultural moments of America’s troubled last half-century.

It’s surely no accident, then, that Franzen sets the sundered years of the Berglund marriage and their friendship with Katz in the dank pit of leftist malaise that was the Bush Years, when even the strongest-willed progressive (and Walter himself must be high on that list) entertained doubts concerning the essential positivity of the American social experiment. Their tentative reunion coincides with Obama’s election, that tenuous new dawn that has proven to be impossibly hard-won (and maybe not ultimately won at all). Although Franzen does attempt to portray the conservative, Republican side of the American character (you know, the side that has won) with similar depth and lack of bias, he clearly understands the ins-and-outs of the left much better than those of the right. Though this effort is not helped by the fact that his novel is at its soul a metaphoric narrativizing of four decades of struggling progressivism, he also tosses far too many peripheral, grotesque right-wing caricatures (Bible-thumping housewives and prejudiced rustics and all-consuming motor jerks) into his story for us to take his political fairness too seriously.

Joey Berglund is clearly supposed to be his conservative figurehead, but he’s naught but a potential College Republican who never quite emerges as one, who we’re only really invited to sympathize with in a genuine way when he belatedly sprouts a social conscience. Joey hides twisted sexual proclivities beneath a handsome exterior, interprets 9/11 as nothing more profound than an affront to his sense of entitlement, and makes several major life decisions simply to annoy his liberal parents. Maybe this is an accurate enough representation of the features of American conservatism, but it sure isn’t a flattering one. Still, Joey gets the book’s most spectacularly baroque laugh-out-loud scene, and it’s impossible to imagine any of the main trio of characters, with their inherent dignity, making it quite so hilarious. I won’t spoil it other than to say that it involves a very obvious and primitive way to retrieve an accidentally-swallowed wedding ring; it’s quite nearly a match for a similar moment of comic humiliation in The Corrections, which featured a pathetic academic trying to steal a slab of salmon from a high-end grocery store by slipping it into his pants.

Beyond any political or sociological meaning, though, Freedom‘s title points to Franzen’s wider concept, or at least half of it. The novel is largely founded on the premise that freedom of competition does not mean freedom from competition. Indeed, as one chapter entitled “Free Markets Foster Competition” suggests, freedom rather ensures competition. Walter, Patty, Richard, and Joey all embody the competitive pressures of democratic capitalism, but Franzen’s central image, that of the migratory songbirds that Walter loves and tries to protect, is the most resonant embodiment of that idea. Franzen writes about how birds, whose faculties of flight are such a cliche of freedom that it’s pretty ballsy to even invoke the image, die by the millions in America due to industry, suburban sprawl, vanishing habitats, and, yes, predatory housecats. Americans, to Franzen, are both the birds and the cats. Freedom, like bird populations, is denuded by competition, which is itself increased by freedom. Franzen’s drawing out of this idea throughout his sprawling, rewarding novel never feels as circular as I’ve stated that, though. It’s a solid, living, troubling reality. It is, in a word, America, and Freedom examines it in all of its idiosyncracies. And its greatest downside is that we’ll probably have to wait another decade for a work of American literature that might even strive to be its equal.

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