1. I can't help associating Patty Berglund, the female lead in Freedom, with Mad Men's Betty Draper. And you know what? Betty Draper is more interesting and I'll tell you why. In Freedom, we get a couple hundred pages of Patty's diary, explaining the ins and outs of her personality, her childhood, her fantasies, and her disappointments. Betty, on the other hand, is still a mystery. Her future therefore seems more open and unpredictable, whereas Patty's psychology is so over-determined that there's really nothing left to be interested in.
2. Much of the coverage of Freedom seems to figure the book as somehow standing apart from most contemporary literary fiction (the Time cover would seem the most striking embodiment of this exceptionalist view). But I couldn't help but see the long line of Freedom's literary forebears: Henry James' The Golden Bowl, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, John Updike's Couples, Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, James Salter's Light Years and on and on; the long trail of American novels about married couples of the ruling class (and the just under the ruling class) feels quite present here.
3. This reminds me of something one of my undergraduate professors, the great James Carothers, once told me: "I have never yet read an accurate portrayal of the silent life of a couple that has lived together for many years." My own reading experience has born this out as well, but the absence of any sustained effort on Franzen's part to show us how Patty and Walter were together during their good years empties their later struggles of much interest. (For the record, Prof. Carothers also said that he thought repetitive manual labor and excruciating physical pain were unrepresentable in prose. Always found this fascinating. And true.)
4. Even though Patty's "autobiography" takes up a significant part of the novel, I am reminded that we should not be fooled into thinking we know her any better than any of the other characters. In fact, I might argue that we know her less well. In literature, a character's direct composition (diary, letters, etc.) are actually further removed from their interiority than direct narration for one simple reason: they have control over their self-representation in these moments. A great example is Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. For most of the novel, we get Stephen Daedalus' story in the form of third-person omniscience. However, the last part of the novel is Stephen's diary, and we end up knowing less about what he's feeling and thinking for it.
5. With this in mind, you can see the trouble Franzen has with writing women. Patty's text (with a prose style that is remarkably similar to the rest of the novel) is really an end-around of having to write her as Franzen writes Richard, Walter, and Joey. And none of the other important female characters (Lalitha, Jessica, Connie, Carol) have passages in which Franzen explores their interiority. Even the history of Walter's family is strikingly patrilinear. It's somewhat difficult not to see Franzen's depiction of women here as somewhat akin to Richard's womanizing; they find women interesting and important, but distant and unknowable--with Patty, for both of them, the exception that demonstrates the rule.
6. Franzen's success as an essay writer in the years since The Corrections has, to my mind, had a deleterious effect on his fiction. There are simply too many essayistic moments in Freedom (close-reading the persona of Conor Oberst being perhaps the most glaring example) for my taste. His impulse seems to be to diagnose, rather than to portray, the world around him. The Berglunds are so overtly emblematic of a particular swath of American life that they, conversely, represent no one. Compare them to a literary couple like, say, Nicole and Dick Diver from Tender is the Night, and I think Franzen’s deductive portrayal which culls character from the zeitgeist is less effective than Fitzgerald’s inductive one, which achieves transcendence through specificity.
7. I am no longer really interested in this story. The domestic struggles of the well-off seem sufficiently well-trodden in popular culture. Frazen's strain to connect the Berglund discord to larger social issues seems to me to exemplify the barrenness of this particular milieu. Maybe there's something new and interesting to be said about it, but it has to be, you know, new and interesting.
8. To add my ballot to the voting on the meaning of the title: I think it's a canard. Like the fate of the Cerulean Warbler, freedom here is seen as an end in itself whose propagation and maintenance justifies a great deal of wrong-doing. In Walter's professional life, the warbler provides cover for huge crimes against the environment by corporate America. This situation is doubled in his son Joey's foray into defense-contracting, in which he profits mightily from the war in Iraq where "freedom" is the nominal casus belli. This association between the warbler and "freedom" is codified, perhaps even too overtly, on the cover of the American edition itself: the warbler and freedom stand nearly face to face.
9. Speaking of mirrors, what an amazing selection for Oprah. I've only read a dozen or so of the books she has selected, but I can't imagine there has been one that represents her viewership so directly. How many Patty Berglunds will read Freedom? And what will they see in it?
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