Cerulean wood warblers; illustration by John James Audubon

In his essay “Mr. Difficult,” Jonathan Franzen reports with a certain glum satisfaction that following the publication in 2001 of his third novel, The Corrections, he began to receive large quantities of angry mail. Some of the anger was sociological. “Who is it you are writing for? It surely could not be the average person who just enjoys a good read.” And some of it was just plain personal. One reader accused Franzen of being “a pompous snob, and a real ass-hole.”1

Franzen’s novel spent twenty-nine weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and won the 2001 National Book Award. But no general readerly consensus seemed to exist concerning the book’s merits. The novel had hit a nerve, and it polarized its readers into two camps: those who hated it with particular venom, and those who felt it was a fine and beautiful book. (I was among the latter.) The author’s own ambivalence about the mass media didn’t help matters. After saying some indiscreet words about the Oprah Winfrey imprimatur on his novel’s book jacket, Franzen was disinvited from appearing on her show. It was a scandal, for a week or two.

The disagreements haven’t gone away. In his recent Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, David Shields denounces The Corrections without having read it: “I couldn’t read that book if my life depended on it,” he asserts. For him, Franzen’s novel—sight unseen—exemplifies “the big, blockbuster novel by middle-of-the-road writers, the run-of-the-mill four-hundred-page page-turner.”2 Shields claims that he is amazed that people still want to read such fiction. Oddly, what Shields seems to distrust about Franzen’s work (its mass appeal, its middleness) is exactly what the author’s enraged readers claimed The Corrections lacked. Was it still possible for a mass-audience novel to be artistically refined and thematically important? On this point there was no agreement because there hasn’t been any for decades.

For the most part Franzen writes as if literary modernism and experimental postmodernism had never occurred. All four of his novels, including the new one, are somewhat loose and baggy, and they contain an easygoing and warm attention to the complexities of human character. Reality-as-given is for these books an endlessly renewable resource. There is no “relentless investigation into the possibilities of form,” to use a phrase from Gilbert Sorrentino to describe the avant-garde.3 However, Franzen’s books do address sizable cultural events. Strong Motion is in the honorable category of eco-catastrophe fiction. The Corrections has several subplots having to do with clinical depression, biotechnology, and the recapitalization of Eastern Europe. The subplots of Freedom include species extinction, mountaintop removal used in West Virginia coal mining, overpopulation, and private-sector subcontracts for the Iraq war. The personal is invariably sutured to the social, but the personal—the portrait of Enid Lambert, the mother in The Corrections, for example—is what generally remains most memorable in these books.

Franzen is a writer of great patience. This is his glory and his curse. Like Arnold Bennett and any number of other nineteenth-century English and Russian novelists, he has the voluptuary’s interest in physical details, and he takes his time in describing them. When a character enters a room, the reader will usually be given all its particulars:

The floors were spongily carpeted and sloped perceptibly toward the creek in back. In the living/dining area was a hubcap-sized, extensively crenellated ceramic ashtray within easy reach of the davenport where Gene Berglund had read his fishing and hunting magazines and watched whatever programming the motel’s antenna (rigged, as she saw the next morning, to the top of a decapitated pine tree behind the septic field) was able to pull down from stations in the Twin Cities and Duluth.

Readers like David Shields whose time sense is more irritably prone to aesthetic boredom have found Franzen’s novels to be too slow, too filled with experiences, to reflect contemporary life. This impatience with realism’s dutiful details can be imagined as a late echo of Virginia Woolf’s famous attack on Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale in 1919:

If we fasten, then, one label on all these books, on which is one word, materialists, we mean by it that they write of unimportant things; that they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.4

Things, that is, take up the space that the spirit should occupy, and the result is dulling in its attentiveness to objects that do not signify. Franzen, like most novelists, wants the physical world and the spirit, and in a way he gets the whole package. But in his new novel, the material world does its best to crowd out and to extinguish the spirit, depicted here as an almost-extinct species of bird, the cerulean warbler. It survives, but just barely.


Freedom begins with an odd rhetorical flourish of late-Victorian pastiche:

The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally—he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now—but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times.

This remarkably ugly sentence, confounding in its quadruple negatives, signals that the book to follow will be about hypocrisy and its attendant rhetoric. Of course Walter and Patty Berglund still mean something to Ramsey Hill. Why else would the “urban gentry” bother to read about them in The New York Times? But we have been warned. The sentence is a syntactical trap. Like many others to follow, its spring consists of one spurious denial followed by another.

As was the case in The Corrections, Freedom’s central social unit is the family. This family consists of Walter Berglund and his wife, Patty Emerson; their son, Joey (they have a daughter also, who is a minor player); and their closest friend, Richard Katz, a musician. Also like The Corrections, this novel divides itself toward two sets of temptations: love’s passions on one side, and worldly power on the other. I use the word “temptations” here advisedly because Freedom operates as a kind of morality play in which all the major players are drawn toward actions they should not perform and objects they either cannot or should not possess.

Walter Berglund, the “nicest guy in Minnesota,” comes from a semirural background and possesses all the attributes of a caretaker; he is a decent, kind, thoughtful man, and the adjectives could go on: devoted, reliable, and conscientious among them. Patty calls him “a genuinely nice person,” though she does not intend this statement as a compliment. (In two instances Walter is juxtaposed to Tolstoy’s Pierre Bezúkhov, another amiable and good-hearted stumblebum.) The great challenge for any novelist is to make the seemingly bland virtues of a good person interesting by testing them properly, and Franzen initially manages to do so by putting Walter in the company of Richard Katz, his “self-absorbed, addiction-prone, unreliable, street-smart” Macalester College roommate, who serves as the third part of this book’s initial love triangle.

Walter’s exasperating goodness does not inspire passion in women. Niceness alone rarely does. One of the novel’s central plotlines has to do with Walter’s courtship of Patty, and Patty’s struggles to fall in love with and to stay married to this paragon. The addiction-prone bad-boy musician Richard Katz is the one she truly wants, of course. In her more despairing moments, she considers sex with Walter to be “boring and pointless,” and her attitude toward him mixes pity and condescension in about equal measure:

Poor Walter [Patty thinks]. First he’d set aside his acting and filmmaking dreams out of a sense of financial obligation to his parents, and then no sooner had his dad set him free by dying than he teamed up with Patty and set aside his planet-saving aspirations and went to work for 3M, so that Patty could have her excellent old house and stay home with the babies.

Renouncing his own desires, Walter falls victim to the same delusion that Gabriel Conroy suffers from in James Joyce’s “The Dead”: the belief that someone will love you passionately for being reliable and conscientious. As he and Patty discover, that isn’t how passionate love works. Walter’s blindness on this point, treated as a midwestern affliction, has greater consequences later on in the book once he meets a woman who truly loves him. When Patty inevitably betrays Walter with Richard Katz, to whom she has always been attracted, she comes to believe that she did so almost in spite of herself, while asleep:

That she could say all this, and not only say it but remember it very clearly afterward, does admittedly cast doubt on the authenticity of her sleep state. But the autobiographer is adamant in her insistence that she was not awake at the moment of betraying Walter and feeling his friend split her open.

Note how deniability functions here. Indeed, this section of Freedom, titled “Mistakes Were Made,” echoing the quasi-confessional passive-voice cliché of public rhetoric in our country’s recent history, moves the story gradually out of the personal into the political. Franzen takes very seriously the kind of unhappiness in a marriage that results when, to quote Auden, “equal affection cannot be.”5 For all her good intentions, Patty’s unequal affection inevitably pulls her toward the dark side, although “all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable.” Her marriage, to use a phrase employed later in the book in another (political) context, is a noble lie, and the noble lie serves as the pivot point around which almost everything in Freedom turns.


The opening two hundred pages of Freedom give us the story of this marriage and Patty’s betrayal of it, first in an omniscient-narrator summary, then in the form of a third-person autobiography written by Patty at the suggestion of her therapist. The Minneapolis–St. Paul settings are depicted here with great accuracy and with no authorial condescension toward midwesterners (“yokels of questionable intelligence,” as Patty’s offstage Westchester relatives think of them) or any whiff of pastoralism of the Lake Wobegon variety. The minor characters—Eliza, who is Patty’s crazed heroin-addicted roommate, and Richard Katz—are pleasantly sleazy and provide the sort of colorful vices that Patty and Walter lack. Patty and Walter’s courtship and marriage are pictured with great sympathy and weightiness, as if whom one loves still constitutes one’s fate.

At times, these opening pages come off as a brilliant hybridization of a Jane Austen and a D.H. Lawrence novel. They are written with the conviction that the novel of love isn’t dead after all. The style is trenchantly witty and observant, and the reader is likely to forget that Patty (“not actually dumb but relatively dumber” than her siblings) hardly seems capable of writing the Franzenian sentences with which her autobiography is speckled, such as: “There’s a hazardous sadness to the first sounds of someone else’s work in the morning; it’s as if stillness experiences pain in being broken.” This is a sentence written by a former Big Ten basketball player who is now a Minnesota housewife? Well, okay, sure, why not?

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.

This Issue

September 30, 2010