But Franzen, judging from the evidence of this novel, doesn’t want to be Jane Austen; he wants to be Tolstoy. Courtship and marriage comprise only a part of his book. His characters must move to the centers of American power, out of the Midwest and into Washington and New York City, where world-historical mistakes are made, and where, as innocents, they will be wised-up. Freedom’s ambition is to be the sort of novel that sums up an age and that gets everything into it, a heroic and desperate project. The author all but comes out and says so, using Walter, a conservationist, as his spokesperson for the big statement that draws everything and everyone together:
Because it’s the same problem everywhere. It’s like the internet, or cable TV—there’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off.
The section in which the social trouble begins is labeled “2004,” and the reader quickly perceives that we are moving into a parable of sorts concerning the era of George W. Bush. Walter goes to work for a shadowy “old-school Republican” named Vin Haven, who has set up something called the Cerulean Mountain Trust, meant to save the rare cerulean warbler, “the fastest-declining songbird in North America.” But there is a catch:
To help save the cerulean warbler, Walter said, the Trust was aiming to create a hundred-square-mile roadless tract—Haven’s Hundred was its working nickname—in Wyoming County, West Virginia, surrounded by a large “buffer zone” open to hunting and motorized recreation. To be able to afford both the surface and mineral rights to such a large single parcel, the Trust would first have to permit coal extraction on nearly a third of it, via mountaintop removal.
Anything sound fishy here? To believe that such a harebrained scheme would work without corrupting itself and everyone involved in the process, you’d have to be either impossibly naive or impossibly idealistic. It is here that Franzen’s novel gets into structural difficulties. Every alert reader, and not just cynical ones, will see the ends/means problem looming up in this equation, with Walter playing the dupe. Because Walter can’t see that difficulty until it’s too late, he goes from being a latter-day Pierre Bezúkhov to being like the young Jimmy Stewart in a 1930s Frank Capra movie. He becomes, in short, the sort of well-meaning yokel his in-laws suspect he is. At the same time, he begins to fall in love with his personal assistant, Lalitha, a love that has nothing to do on either side with niceness, and that exposes him to reciprocal love for the first time and thus forces a choice on him that he’s not temperamentally equipped to make.
Walter’s passion for birds helps to get him into Vin Haven’s ethical fix, a passion he shares with his author, who in “My Bird Problem” has written eloquently about bird-watching and the “undefended sincerity of birders.”6 But Walter’s sincerity cannot operate effectively in the world so long as it lacks a certain baseline sophistication that recognizes what other people are like and what they usually do out of self-interest. Walter, in short, is an idealist and a sentimentalist: he believes that people are better than they actually are.
His naiveté is compounded by Franzen’s patience with him, so that his moral compromises and misunderstandings about Vin Haven and West Virginia take almost 280 pages to unravel. The pages are expertly written and entirely engrossing, but the outcome is never in doubt. When Walter’s illusions do finally unravel and he realizes what he has gotten himself into, in a throw-away-the-speech-and-speak-from-the-heart moment, the reader is likely to wonder what took him so long. Which is to say that almost every reader of Freedom will be more worldly than its protagonist and will have anticipated several of its key moments many pages before they arrive.
James Wood’s critique of The Corrections argued that the author’s forays into the social world were invariably less successful than his treatment of personal and private matters. The move toward the social “becomes merely aesthetic, a metaphorical gesturing.”7 Wood’s statement of this problem has a point, but it is surely not an engagement with the culture that dooms any fictional treatment of it but rather a tendency to create polarized oppositions of public behavior, the entirely virtuous on one side, the entirely bad on the other, generating a landscape where no middle ground exists for any character to occupy.
One sees this polarized opposition, this absence of any middle ground, arising repeatedly in the social and political world that Freedom’s characters attempt to inhabit. Richard Katz, Walter’s college roommate, finally has a very public success, from which he quickly retreats, as if any engagement with popular culture (think: Oprah) must necessarily be bogus. The clearest shadow counterpoint to Walter’s story, however, is that of his son Joey, a sexually precocious, intellectually gifted, practically minded, and beautiful young man, “effortlessly cool, ruggedly confident, totally focused on getting what he want[s], impervious to moralizing, unafraid of girls.” In other words: not like Walter. Joey, almost from childhood, has a girlfriend, Connie, who adores him blindly, and whom he genuinely loves in return. All the gods have smiled upon him.
But what happens to Joey parallels almost exactly what happens to his father, which suggests a certain schematic imagination at work. In a lengthy and grimly entertaining subplot, Joey becomes a young entrepreneur and resupplier of defective truck parts to the war in Iraq, partly out of his own wish to be a player on the world stage, and partly because he is bored by his settled love for Connie and is attracted instead to his roommate’s sister, the ominously named Jenna (as in “Bush”). Jenna, unimaginably attractive and morally loathsome, is the daughter of a Paul Wolfowitz–like expert in public policy “devoted to advocating the unilateral exercise of American military supremacy to make the world freer and safer.”
At this point in the novel, Bush-era ideas take center stage, and Joey is instantly seduced by them. Presiding over the dinner table, Jenna’s father, who sounds as if he had been reading Leo Strauss that very day, begins to hold forth:
The terrorist attacks had given “us” a golden opportunity…for “the philosopher” (which philosopher, exactly, Joey wasn’t clear on or had missed an earlier reference to) to step in and unite the country behind the mission that his philosophy had revealed as right and necessary.
“We have to learn to be comfortable with stretching some facts,” he said, with his smile, to an uncle who had mildly challenged him about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities. “Our modern media are very blurry shadows on the wall, and the philosopher has to be prepared to manipulate these shadows in the service of a greater truth.”
There it is again: the noble lie. Briefly inspired by these ideas and wishing to impress Jenna, Joey goes to work. His rise as a pipsqueak jet-setting would-be entrepreneur interestingly bears a shadow resemblance to the rise of JR Vansant in William Gaddis’s JR, one of Franzen’s bêtes noires. But like his father’s efforts, Joey’s are doomed to failure. At least he has enough far-sightedness not to go down the drain that has been prepared for him. Standing in his father’s shadow, Joey eventually sees the error of his ways both in the public sphere and the private one. He leaves his job, and Jenna into the bargain, for a more suitable occupation, marketing shade-grown coffee, and for the more suitable Connie. After considerable moral self-searching, he retrieves his wedding ring literally from his own waste matter.
The tone of Freedom’s last two hundred pages oscillates between moral outrage and despair, as it covers the contemporary American map. The indignation arises from the characters’ contemplation of one public wound after another: West Virginia (“the nation’s own banana republic, its Congo, its Guyana, its Honduras”); the anger of right-wing conservatives; the “ecological damage wreaked by recreational ATVers”; governmental misrule; public mendacity; even flipflops. (“It’s like the world is their bedroom. And they can’t even hear their own flap-flap-flapping, because they’ve all got their gadgets, they’ve all got their earbuds in.”) The indignation rises in volume, furthermore, because there seems to be no remedy for it.
What has happened, I think, is that the public sphere is regarded here as a total loss, so that all the big problems are imagined as unsolvable. The result is a particular kind of despair, the sort that arises from rage with no outlet, the core emotion of a large proportion of educated readers during the George W. Bush administration. Corrupted by ruinous quantities of money and the cynical application of power, the public world depicted here seems incapable of saving anything of value. At every point where a citizen tries to enter that world, he encounters active lying and the operations of expedient logic, and, in the novel’s view, he becomes a collaborator. Franzen is not a conservative, but he is a conservationist, and his novel watches helplessly, ragingly, as cherished habitats, cherished beings, begin to disappear.
All of the novel’s major characters briefly get what they (misguidedly) want, at which point they see their mistake and draw back. Patty, for example, actually gets to move in with Richard Katz. As a couple, they cannot last longer than three months. But then, why did we spend so much time observing their efforts to find each other? At other junctures, through accidents of fate, Freedom’s characters lose what they thought they could possess. All of them—Walter, Patty, Joey, and Richard—are tainted by what they have desired, but they are never corrupted. Franzen is a generous writer, and he seemingly cannot bear to have his main characters destroyed by the needs they seek to fulfill. No one here is beyond redemption, as it turns out, and redemption, that sad secondary condition, is what these characters achieve.
To save the cerulean warbler, the book’s emblematic symbol of beauty and the spirit, only small gestures, not large political ones, will work. As a consequence, the ending of Freedom has an atmosphere of quietism, the hush of steely detachment falling down over despair. This quietism is the book’s answer to its own angers, but it seems willed into being under tremendous pressure, as if all the major battles have been lost and the only consolations are to be found in winning the minor ones.
Freedom attempts to come to terms with the Bush years and is finally defeated by them. Having said that, I need to add that the book is often inspired and eloquent. Its ambitions are praiseworthy, as is its fury. Its heart is rather beautifully on its sleeve much of the time. The large audience for which Franzen’s novel is intended will no doubt find it written with consistent intelligence and energy. But it cannot solve the problems it regards as crucial, which is our loss and probably our fate.
"My Bird Problem," in The Discomfort Zone (Picador, 2006), p. 183. ↩
The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (Picador, 2005), p. 205.↩