Sunday, 24 October 2010

Freedom: what's in a word

I'm slightly surprised that nobody so far has got some poor intern to go through the two versions of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom looking for the 50 or so changes that he's supposed to have made between them. I don't have the time to do that, but I am intrigued by the occasions the title crops up in the text. The book begins with a 24-page form of prologue that's breathtaking in its breadth and splendour, describing the marital life of the Berglunds, Walter and Patty.

The next section, however, an 'Autobiography of Patty Berglund by Patty Berglund (Composed at her Therapist's Suggestion)', smacks of a disappointing version of David Foster Wallace. In it, 'freedom' is used for the first time: 'She [Patty] had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.' Visiting her daughter at college a few pages later, Patty notices 'a stone graven with words of wisdom from the Class of 1920: USE WELL THY FREEDOM.'

The F-word appears again in the book's second section, 'Mountaintop Removal', but this time applied to major corporations and the way they can act in respect of environmental/wildlife concerns: 'The coal companies had reason to fear that the warbler would soon be listed under the Endangered Species Act, with potentially deleterious effects on their freedom to cut down forests and blow up mountains.'

Though I'm not convinced by all of the writing in Freedom, Franzen, like Douglas Coupland, is a very good reader of his own work and, at the point you're wondering what happened to the Berglunds' enigmatic son Joey, there he is. And he is accorded the fourth mention of the title when, despite his differences with the parents from whom he is essentially divorced, he suddenly recognises the consequences of his personal choices: 'He'd asked for his freedom, they'd granted it, and he couldn't go back now.'

Post 9/11, this freedom thing is a double-edged sword; as the Iraq invasion looms, the neocons are pictured 'waving their hands and acting as if it didn't even matter if any WMDs came to light; as if the freedom of the Iraqi people were the main issue.' Drawn into an argument about Iraq and the Middle East with a roommate's politico father, Joey says: 'Isn't that what freedom is for? The right to think whatever you want? I mean, I admit, it's a pain in the ass sometimes.'

Joey's conflicted father, Walter, progresses the argument 100 pages on: '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 own kids, even if your kids are getting 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.'

Among those who came to the States for money or freedom is Walter's irascible Swedish grandfather, Einar. We're told: 'America, for Einar, was the land of unSwedish freedom, the place of wide-open spaces where a son could still imagine he was special.' And here, with reference to Einar's aggressive road manners, comes the authorial voice (in brackets): 'The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.' Einar is representative of Walter's immigrant prejudice: 'He hated the blacks, the Indians, the well-educated, the hoity-toity, and, especially, the federal government, and he loved his freedoms (to drink, to smoke, to hole up with his buddies in an ice-fishing hut) the more intensely for being so modest.'

(Spoiler warning! You may want to skip this paragraph if you haven't finished Freedom.) Walter is increasingly the book's central figure and he is the subject when his best friend, Richard, a musician, tries to woo Walter's wife, Patty, the long-time object of a mutual passion. '"Come with me,"' Richard tells her. '"We'll go somewhere and Walter can have his freedom."' Granted his liberation, Walter embarks on an affair with his young coworker on an angry environmental project: 'Like a cold spring at the bottom of a warmer lake, old Swedish-gened depression was seeping up inside him: a feeling of not deserving a partner like Lalitha; of not being made for a life of freedom and outlaw heroics; of needing a more dully and enduringly discontented situation to struggle against and fashion an existence within.'

I've no doubt missed other mentions of freedom; without wanting to give any more away, the book's ending, for Walter, could be seen as a form of surrender. Franzen seems unsure of himself when he goes beyond the world of Patty and Walter (don't get me started on his portrayal of 'dark-skinned' Lalitha, as he likes to draw her; there are some odd, scatological, comic set-pieces here, too). The lack of confidence may have been underlined by the unfortunate kerfuffle over 'the corrections' but it is to the book of that title I'd go if you want to investigate Franzen for the first time. If you're determined for a taste of Freedom, do consider waiting for the paperback: at this heft, the hardback's not the most convenient tube read. (Like those books that come with their own reading stand, this should have its own shoulder bag, marketing folk?)

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