A liberal contempt for the land of the free
For all the praise heaped on Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel Freedom, it actually reveals the people-hating, anti-freedom essence of the modern liberal mindset.
Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom is the hottest work of fiction in America this year. Most reviewers have been raving: ‘a masterpiece’ (Sam Tanenhaus in the New York Times) and ‘a work of total genius’ (Sam Anderson in New York magazine). It is referred to as a Big American Novel with ambitious scope. Time magazine put a picture of Franzen on its cover, with the title ‘Jonathan Franzen: Great American Novelist’.
Freedom is Franzen’s fourth novel. His previous, The Corrections (2001), was also highly acclaimed, winning the National Book Award. He was most popularly known at that time for snubbing Oprah, who had selected The Corrections for her book club. Franzen has since made his peace with Oprah, and she is now promoting Freedom.
Because of his detailed examinations of contemporary American society, and his rejection of postmodern stylism in favour of direct prose, Franzen has been described as a social realist. This does not mean that his novels ignore private life; as he has said, a novel is ‘supposed to find ways to connect the largest possible social picture with the most intimate, personal, difficult-to-express human stories’.
Freedom is indeed a perceptive work from a sociological perspective, in that it addresses some of today’s key dividing-line themes: the conflicts among social groups (the ‘red state’ and ‘blue state’ identities); environmentalism; and the desirability of freedom. And the novel does filter these issues through the psychological tensions among a cast of characters, most notably the Berglund family.
The Berglunds are a liberal, professional family who are among the gentrifiers in urban St. Paul, Minnesota. Walter is a lawyer with environmentalist views, and Patty is a former college basketball player who has become a full-time housewife. They have two kids, Jessica and Joey. On the surface, their life appears almost idyllic, but we watch as their family unit disintegrates. A major instigator of their break-up – but not the only one – is Walter’s friend from college, Richard Katz, a charismatic and pleasure-seeking musician.
This family psycho-drama is intermingled with a variety of broader social and political conflicts. Freedom portrays Americans as being at each others’ throats. The book begins with a description of the catty tensions among neighbours in St Paul. Liberals’ ire is focused on Carol Monaghan, who ‘smoked Parliaments, bleached her hair, made lurid talons of her nails, fed her daughter heavily processed foods, and came home very late on Thursday nights’, and her boyfriend Blake, who is seen ‘shuffling around in a Vikings jersey with his work boots unlaced and a beer can in his fist’ and whose truck has the bumper sticker ‘I’M WHITE AND I VOTE’. In the ultimate liberal nightmare, the Berglunds’ son Joey starts sleeping with Carol’s daughter Connie, moves in with the white trash family and develops Republican views. Later in the book, there is another neighbourhood war, this time in a lakeside community. Walter battles Linda, an Evangelical, because he cannot abide the fact that Linda allows her cat outside to prey on birds, which he is trying to protect.
Large stretches of the book are devoted to expounding on Walter’s environmentalist politics. In particular he campaigns against ‘overpopulation’, saying ‘there’s hardly a problem in the world that wouldn’t be solved or at least tremendously alleviated by having fewer children’. Walter has been holding back on his most strident views, but at a public speaking event he breaks down and blurts out ‘WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET!’ This is video-recorded and becomes a viral internet hit.
Walter believes that Americans are blind to the supposed problem of global over-procreation because they are too wedded to economic growth and prosperity, and too desirous of freedom. He agrees with Richard when he says, ‘the real reason you can’t get any cultural traction with overpopulation is that talking about fewer babies means talking about limits to growth’. But Walter also adds, ‘The reason the system can’t be overthrown in this country is all about freedom. The reason the free market in Europe is tempered by socialism is that they’re not so hung up on personal liberties there. They also have lower population growth rates, despite comparable income levels. The Europeans are all-around more rational, basically.’
Time and again, Walter bemoans that Americans have too much freedom. His focus is mainly on the social aspect, and what it means for politics. But more generally, Franzen’s novel suggests that freedom is problematic in both the public and private spheres. His various characters share a common flaw: they do not know how to handle freedom and act responsibly. Their obsession with freedom leads to selfish behaviour. This both sours personal relationships and damages the planet.
In interviews, Franzen has indicated that he shares Walter’s Malthusian views. He says that Walter ‘points out, rightly, that pretty much every serious problem in the world is, if not caused by too many people, certainly aggravated by it’. Further, world population has ‘become kind of a taboo thing, nobody will talk about it, it’s the elephant in the room. So I wanted to talk about the elephant in the room a bit.’ Franzen also recently
But presenting a pure Walter would have been too simple, and hardly believable for today’s cynical readers. Exposing Walter’s contradictions makes him flawed, but he is a type of hero in the book nevertheless. In the end he is looked upon sympathetically. We are meant to think: of course Walter has flaws because he’s human, but what’s important is that his heart is in the right place.
Franzen may deal with some important themes in American society, but his sociological portrait is not an accurate one. Red state/blue state conflicts certainly exist, but thankfully they are not as cut-throat and bleak as Franzen presents. Overpopulation is hardly a ‘taboo’ subject as he and other Malthusians claim – it is talked about all the time (as Brendan O’Neill argued here). And in a land where civil liberties are under attack by both the right (Patriot Act) and the left (PC hate speech), America is hardly experiencing a surplus of freedom right now.
Franzen may explore human relationships, but his outlook is misanthropic – and not just because he sees the world as overpopulated. What’s arguably even more damning is how he depicts all characters as irredeemably psychologically screwed up because of their parents. Americans across the political spectrum are angry, and it can be traced back to their upbringing. Even environmentalists come off badly. Walter, for example, is described as taking refuge in concern for nature as a way to work through his ancestors’ predilection for ‘misery and grievance’.
To view everyone as messed up is really a disdainful attitude. It gives the author, and head-nodding readers, a sense of superiority.
Franzen is thus deeply pessimistic: his characters have no higher aspirations, they just struggle to get by and seek solace in lowering their horizons. He would no doubt say this is the current US condition. But this says more about him than today’s Americans, who through their work, community, church and other aspects of life can be understood as striving for greater meaning – a striving that Franzen, such is his aloofness, is incapable of seeing.
This misanthropy undermines the artistic aspects of the novel as well. Not only does it mean we are force-fed long diatribes about overpopulation; the characters’ lack of nobility also deprives them of the quality of being interesting. If people have no higher ambitions, if their lives are inescapably mundane, why should we care about them?
Freedom is an important book, mainly for what it tells us about the contemporary outlook of a particular liberal mindset. But it is far from a great one, as some have claimed. A novel that so blatantly rejects the individual’s potential to transcend his or her circumstances is hardly worthy of that title.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.
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