One hundred pages into this 562-page novel I was feeling agitated and longing for it to end. However, one hundred pages is a big investment of time and so I started speed-reading. It is an easy book to speed-read which is a testimony to the author’s mastery of the English language. In fact, his phrasing is like a Mozart symphony and has a light, lyrical quality. Around page 361 I stopped the speed-reading and started to chug along at my normal slow pace but by then I had figured out long ago that the reason why I found Freedom so irritating was that I thoroughly disliked its characters. I found them so annoying I wanted to plunge my hands into the text grab each of them by the shoulders and give them a good shake because they were all of them the engineers of their own disastrous destinies. As to why I had this epiphany around page 361 I’ll explain in a minute.
The novel concerns a mid western US family, the Berglunds, Walter and Patty, who are the parents of Jessica and Joey. Walter is a lawyer, Patty’s occupation is what used to be called a homemaker but she would have described herself as a fulltime ‘Mom’. Their lifestyle is modest and they buy an old Victorian house in a rundown quartier of St. Paul Minnesota (midwest U.S.A.) and begin its renovation and are ultimately leaders in the gentrification of their neighbourhood. The very first paragraph of Chapter One announces the professional downfall of Walter Berglund, not a lot of detail is given but the reader is provided an indication as to where this novel is heading and it could be renamed: The Fall of the House of Berglund. The neighbours knew the Berglund’s as responsible, generous civic-minded homeowners who lived in harmony within their nuclear family parameters. They were thought to be a little bit strange as for example; Walter drove his bicycle to work through the February snows, then again, as an environmental lawyer that should not have been considered excessively eccentric behaviour. Patty as the affable cake-baking neighbour exhibited symptoms of being totally besotted with her spoiled son Joey and by comparison, indifferent to her well behaved daughter Jessica. Eventually in the last years of high school, Joey moves out of his parent’s home into that of his girlfriend, Connie, next door. Connie’s family is not in tune with the gentrification of the neighbourhood and they build a huge family room within the sightlines of the Berglund’s dining room window. The addition is totally out of character with the restored Victorian homes in the neighbourhood and Patty, infuriated by their lack of taste as well as their sheltering of her rebellious son flies into a destructive rage going as far as slashing the tires of the neighbour’s truck.
In Chapter One, the Berglunds are introduced as their neighbours see them. The next chapter is made up of Patty’s autobiography that she wrote at the suggestion of her therapist. It is written in the third person singular. Julius Cesar used the same technique when he wrote his Gallic Wars, as he wanted to paint a heroic picture of his exploits and as ‘self-praise is no praise’ the use of the third person singular provided the illusion of the unprejudiced observer! As for Patty’s use of this technique; it was a way to minimize the reader’s view of her destructive behaviour. The autobiography demonstrates a lack of self-awareness. Patty grew up on the east coast and excelled as a basketball athlete but her affluent parents were involved with the arts and had no appreciation for sports. Worse, when Patty is date raped by the son of a family friend her parents are not inclined to seek justice and prefer to think of the event as a misunderstanding. Patty accepts a basketball scholarship in a midwestern university to get as far away from her family as possible and in the latter part of her university career meets a very cool, philosophic and poetic musician named Richard Katz through an odd, girlfriend of Patty’s who has been stalking and bullying Patty in a quirky sort of way. Patty ends up dating Richard’s roommate, Walter but eventually ‘throws’ herself at Richard who does not reciprocate her affection because of a certain loyalty toward Walter and because he knows himself to be a Bohemian type who could never be attached to any one individual for a long period of time. Patty returns to Walter on the rebound. She marries Walter with the object of devoting herself to marriage and motherhood.
If you are bored by these mundane details of Patty’s ‘soap opera’ life imagine how painful it was to read this autobiography that lasts about seventy pages. I am out of breath in just recalling the sequence of events! Although, I have to admit that if the reader is to understand this portrait of a middle class American family all the details must be read including the affair Patty eventually consummates with Richard Katz some twenty years into to her marriage. The family starts to fall apart when Walter accepts a new job for a non-profit organization in Washington DC. Walter has disowned Joey who refuses to leave his girlfriend and worse, is tending toward a Republican outlook on life but Patty secretly sends him money to supplement the student loans he is obliged to take out for his post secondary education. Walter, in the meantime, makes a pact with the devil. Walter’s pet hobbyhorse is overpopulation. He believes that overpopulation is the source of all the world’s troubles from poverty to war. So he gladly takes a job that he imagines will eventually lead to an opportunity to start a campaign that would change the world for the better by convincing humanity to have fewer babies. A philanthropist billionaire had taken upon himself the task of preserving the habitat of a tiny, grey bird that migrates between North and South America. He hires Walter to find a way to realize this ambitious dream. As money is no object Walter puts together a deal wherein a coal mining company will be given the right to dig out an entire mountain provided after they have extracted all the coal they restore the mountain to its pristine beauty so it may become a sanctuary for this little bird in perpetuity. The philanthropist promises Walter that if he accomplishes this task he may have the funding for his over population project. Walter and his new assistant, a young, glamorous Bengali-American woman named Lalitha acquire the mountain for the mining company by buying out all the residents of the mountain area even finding nightmare dystopian jobs for the members of one of its farming communities as workers in a body armament factory. By, now, if you have had the patience to read this far you can sense that disaster looms on the horizon. Walter has been willing to compromise his environmental principles for a future advantage. Then his relationship with Patty deteriorates as she does not share his vision nor has she anything to do in Washington, not having a profession and as she realizes that Lalitha has fallen in love with Walter… oh dear!
I had meant to outline the bare bones of this novel but I seem to be getting bogged down. I realize now that my enjoyment in reading Freedom came after the fact in trying to sort out what it is about. I finished it about a week ago and since then I have been mulling it over as I take my dog for his daily walk (tromping and thinking – thinking and tromping, mumbling to myself so that the dog is totally fed up with my distraction). I have been asking myself: “Just because the reader has no sympathy for the main characters in a novel, is that a reason to condemn it?” And here is another good question: “Does not the fact that the novel provokes a strong reaction from the reader prove the power of the writer to force the reader to be less of a passive participant in the art of novel writing?”
I mentioned page 361 in the first paragraph of this review. Here Walter gives a short rant about personal liberties as follows:
“People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are being shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to…”
This is the point in the novel where I realized that this is a sad book and as a work of literary fiction it is meant to provide an insight into a particularly American way of thinking that is little understood outside the boundaries of the US. Walter’s speech rings true when you think of Columbine High and Sandy Hook Elementary or seems to explain the dogged antipathy of many of Jonathan Franzen’s compatriots toward gun control and other government regulation. All would be bleak were it not for the last chapter where the author allows a personal redemption for his Berglund characters. It is not the grandiose gestures and plans that save them but the small things they do.