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An American family

In this ambitious if too somber follow-up to ‘The Corrections,’ Franzen shows how our notion of freedom tears at ties that bind

By John Freeman
Globe Correspondent / September 5, 2010

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The giant armadillo, the blue whale, and the Great American Novelist all have something in common. All of them, the watchers say, are critically endangered. Largely due to what’s euphemistically called displacement.

And since Great American Novelists were singular, even in their supposed heyday, the ones who stand to that claim today are as easy to spot as, well, an armadillo in your front yard. They rather have a way of announcing themselves.

Jonathan Franzen will be hard to miss these days, emerging from a nine-year absence on fiction shelves with a novel whose ambition outstrips even his 2001 National Book Award winner, “The Corrections,” the work that transformed him from a talented but obscure novelist to a household name.

As well it should have, for that novel managed — in a country obsessed with the family — to tell us something we didn’t already know, or know quite so simply, about American life, which is this: Many Americans start families to correct the mistakes of the ones they grew up in. “Freedom,” against all odds again, finds an even more alarming basic truth at the heart of American family life: that this country’s notion of unfettered freedom is deeply corrosive to the things that keep a family together, namely self-sacrifice and loyalty. Or as Franzen writes of one of the characters in this new book: “The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.”

It’s a fine summary for what happens to the Berglund family of St. Paul, Minn., over this fraught, occasionally maddening novel. It’s a book full of bad decisions and regrettable incidents, kaleidoscopically replayed. Franzen’s characters marry the wrong man (or woman) and vent their frustration in affairs. They accept jobs beneath them and then reward themselves by giving in to greed.

In fact, all bugaboos about readers wanting to like characters aside, it’s quite a thing to ask a reader to spend 550 pages with the Berglunds. They bicker, indulge in competition, betray one another, and seem driven by a grinding need to win, as if life were some terrifying bonus round of “Jeopardy.”

This agitated competitiveness makes the Berglunds’ fall from grace, announced in the novel’s brisk opening pages, all the more painful for them, and delicious for those around them. Walter Berglund, formerly of the Nature Conservancy, had always wanted to do the right thing, to have a meaningful life. Instead, he has earned himself an article in The New York Times that notes he has been “conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people.”

The Berglunds’ domestic life similarly stinks of something rotten, or so the neighbors think. Walter’s wife, Patty, a mother so annoyingly perfect her every gesture has the whiff of a scold, loses control of their only son, Joey, who has been sleeping with the girl next door. When Joey moves in with his girlfriend and her pickup truck-driving family, Patty has a small meltdown, slashing tires and committing other acts of domestic terrorism.

Told to the reader as if it were the gossip at a PTA meeting, this tale is a slightly queasy-making opener. It presumes, as any gossip does, that finely observed failure — even that of strangers — has its own dark pull. It doesn’t; sometimes it’s merely nasty, and even as this novel moodily extracts itself from this beginning, the bitter aftertaste of its attempted collusion trails us as we begin to learn about Patty, in her own words. Here, the novel finds the sonic uplift big books require, and in some sections, truly soars. Unfolding as a memoir Patty has written, at the instruction of her therapist, the next 100 pages unspools a sad, heartbreaking story of how an earnest, overachieving basketball star was knocked low by a date rape, then forever sent off track by the decision to compromise on a mate. Instead of going for the man she found sexy, she chose the one with whom she felt safe.

“The Corrections” was full of glittering sentences. It wanted you to notice how well they were written. “Freedom,” however, is a much more mature and confident book, less anxious for praise, and for that reason, in many places, better. Patty’s section, for instance, allows the accumulation of her tiny occlusions, compromises, and setbacks to create a vast, almost unbearable penumbra of loss when in fact her life has been most privileged. In a country staggering under a recession, this is no small feat.

Franzen has become far more adept at weaving between past and present, at weaving the fabric of realism that he has strenuously argued is not a backward movement for the novel but its greatest power. Following Patty’s story, we begin jumping from character to character, back and forth in time ever so slightly, so that no incident is singularly perceived; everything reverberates to all connected parties.

Few novelists can manage this kind of narrative juggling as well as Franzen — and do so without resorting to gimmicky voices. Skipping from Walter to his best friend, Richard, a lothario rocker who lives without attachments, back to Walter, who is tangled in anxiety and the desire to make something worthy of his life, Franzen more aptly gives us the sound of men and women thinking. Of justifying their actions. Of balancing their own decisions against the needs of those they love — in short, meditating on the meaning of freedom.

Unfortunately, ambition takes over and this novel succumbs to the need to Say Something Important, as if its characters’ anguished self-loathing and betrayals of one another weren’t enough. It sweeps us into the Iraq War, the molestation of the word freedom under George W. Bush, the gross colonization of freeways by SUVs, and the coming climate collapse, as dramatized by Walter’s attempts to cut a deal with a coal and gas conglomerate so he can save a nearly extinct bird.

Here the book makes its gravest mistake, especially as it treads into the realm of discussions one hears, say, on “The Daily Show’’: It’s not funny. Not even close. It’s odd, for in his recent essays and in “The Corrections,” even in flashes during his two early novels, Franzen has proven to be an often amusing writer, sometimes a hilarious one, which is a necessary thing for a Great American Novelist. If you’re going to say Something Important, at least give us a laugh.

“Freedom” is a finely crafted book; it makes a parallel between the family and our consumer state, which is disturbing and thought provoking. But Franzen, in the end, doesn’t seem to trust the power of his creation. He pulls back, explains it, draws out the book’s nagging worry about the imperial creep of freedom in its domestic and political incarnations until what he is saying sounds less like a story than a college lecture in disguise.

It is hard to fault Franzen for his worry; it speaks incredibly well of him, in a literary environment in which engagement has come to mean giving the occasional fund-raiser reading, that he cares enough to dedicate nearly 10 years to such a project. And indeed one has to agree; times are not great in this country. But is that really news? What Franzen can tell us, though, is what it felt like to live through these times, through the crises and crescendos of a family so real we feel we know them. When Franzen concentrates on just that, he grants the reader the most important freedom of all, at least when it comes to reading novels: the freedom to dream.

John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.’’

FREEDOM By Jonathan Franzen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 562 pp., $28