The epic sprawl of this ambitious yet ultimately unsatisfying novel encompasses everything from indie rock to environmental radicalism to profiteering in the Middle East.
The first novel from Franzen in almost a decade invites comparisons with its predecessor, The Corrections, which won the 2001 National Book Award and sparked controversy with Oprah. Both are novels that attempt to engage—even explain—the times in which they transpire, inhabiting the psyches of various characters wrapped in a multigenerational, Midwestern family dynamic. Yet the plot here seems contrived and the characters fail to engage. The narrative takes the tone of a fable, as it illuminates the lives of Patty and Walter Berglund, politically correct liberals who have a seemingly idyllic marriage in Minnesota, and their two children, who ultimately find life way more complicated than the surface satisfaction of their parents had promised. Through flashbacks, chronological leaps and shifts in narrative voice (two long sections represent a third-person autobiography written by Patty as part of her therapy), the novel provides the back stories of Patty and Walter, their disparate families and their unlikely pairing, as the tone shifts from comic irony toward the tragic. Every invocation of the titular notion of “freedom” seems to flash “theme alert!”: “He was at once freer than he’d been since puberty and closer than he’d ever been to suicide.” “She had so much free time, I could see that it was killing her.” “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.” “But it didn’t feel like a liberation, it felt like a death.” Such ideas seem a lot more important to the novelist than the characters in which he invests them, or the plot in which he manipulates those characters like puppets. Franzen remains a sharp cultural critic, but his previous novels worked better as novels than this one does.
If “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” (as Kris Kristofferson wrote), this book uses too many words to convey too much of nothing.