In his latest tome, The Corrections author and Time-anointed ‘Great American Novelist’ Franzen gives us the crumbling family unit of Walter and Patty Berglund, a liberal, upper-middle-class Minnesotan couple, and their tortured, long-time friendship with Walter’s college roommate, Richard Katz. Walter is a lawyer-turned-environmental activist; Patty, a depressed stay-at-home mom; Katz, a rock star. Also in the mix are a number of other well-drawn supporting characters.
So, to recap: panoramic view of characters, realised in meticulous detail? Check. Masterful, complex narrative structure? Check. Elegant, accessible prose? Check. All this, and he delivers on his booming thematic pronouncement of a title, exploring the darker implications of 21st-century-American-style freedom in the post-September 11 climate, the Iraq War and environmental degradation. It’s a lot to pack in, but Franzen mostly pulls it off. On a smaller scale, he illuminates the excess of a life of overabundant choice. Franzen’s comic exposure of foibles, his chronicling of lowest moments with a generous salting of wry humour, is both pleasurable and deeply discomforting.
And therein lies the big caveat about Franzen’s big achievement. Watching Freedom’s characters evolve and, in Patty and Walter’s cases, suffer much heartache, offers a wincing pleasure steeped in schadenfreude – not unlike the foul sort one takes in watching the most bottom-feeding specimens of reality TV. The difference, of course, is that this is unassailably good writing that gives the reader plenty to chew on.
In the end, there is hope for the Berglunds. But it comes awfully late, awfully fast – as if popped into the mouth as an afterthought, a tiny mint that does not wash away the heavy flavours of the feast.