Friday, August 5, 2011

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom

In writing a review one inevitably finds personal meaning to what is being reviewed. A text is infused with social and political implications just as any object in the world has a textual substance which can serve as a referent to a political reading: as in, this light bulb represents the reign of industrial civilization over a simpler and less mechanized if not digitalized human existence. I won't pretend that my review of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen is exempt of any socio-political reading, or that in fact I don't place a carefully situated lens to a subtext that I think the author is trying to relay. The name alone, Freedom, is provocatively naming the very essence of what is at the foundation for modern democratic life (or so it is said to be). Freedom is considered by most, to be the end goal of all politics, the basis of all life in America. “Let Freedom ring.”
     As we read Franzen's latest novel we begin to wonder where the freedom lies, where it is found. The word itself acts as a leitmotif . In the daily life of the protagonists they find moments of “freedom” in mundane but relatively freer situations. A person who grows up in a rigidly controlled, socially or politically or otherwise stifling environment will find “freedom” in an act as banal as shopping for the right pair of shoes. In Franzen's work we seem to be dealing with this type of freedom: the freedom to choose between the limited scope of choice offered to us in the political or even consumer arena. The choice between Democrat or Republican. The choice between the red dress or the the white one. Or: the choice to save a particular rare species of bird or the better part of a mountain with a vastly diverse ecosystem and a human population destined to suffer from the whims of a mining company, a natural gas company, a greedy politician and/or a conservationist NGO. Like most dichotomies, these mentioned above are, of course, false.
     In Freedom a very realistic and vivid portrayal of a somewhat typical middle-class educated white Midwestern family is presented. The author is a master of clever description and believable dialogue. His protagonist family comes alive in the pages. Walter, the father, has battled his whole life with the struggle his idealism endures in colliding with reality. He has a burning desire to make his mark on the world and to leave it as a better place. He reveres nature and distrusts shortsighted business-minded conservatives and what he sees as ignorant destructive country folk. He is the epitome of the high-minded, arrogant liberal. He is what the populist rural conservative and the neo-con alike love to hate.
      Walter has the twin raison d'etre of wanting to provide for his apolitical but loving and supportive (at least for a while) wife Patty and his spoiled but exceptionally bright children and to work to preserve the natural world in all of its splendor and grace. Alas he finds a well paid and honorable job which allows him to satisfy the two sides of his very intentional and hardworking life. Or so he thinks. Underneath all of Walter's good intentions is the frustrating behemoth of contradictions that his new job and his life contain. In his job as an executive director of a conservation NGO closely allied with the interests of mining and gas companies, the basis of their group is that mountaintops must be opened for mining (destroyed) with the future guarantee that the land will be rehabilitated and protected (saved) for eternity once all the coal is removed. This Orwellian logic reminds us of the infamous quote from the American officer in the Vietnam War: it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it. The contradictions inherent in a conservationist project working in cahoots with an Earth-destroying corporation is not entirely lost on Walter and his mental health suffers from the constant dissonance. He stops short of finding his precious “freedom” for himself or his family.
     Patty, likewise has struggled her whole life with the domestic goal of being the best wife and mother one can imagine. Her own mother never supported her in the ways that she needed, so Patty strives to correct her mother's mistakes by sacrificing her own interests in order to enhance the lives of her family. This self-sacrifice is intended to give Patty purpose and pleasure, but like her husband Walter, Patty misses the mark of her long-term goals and eventually leads a depressive and solitary life while keeping up the appearance (for a while) of the loving mother and wife. She is miserable and has only known fleeting glimpses of “freedom” in the most limited of definitions.
     What Walter and Patty and the whole Berglund family have had to come to terms with (and in the novel they don't necessarily consciously do so) is that freedom, in the sense that it is vastly understood (freedom of choice, of movement; the absence of coercion by outside institutions or people) is an impossibility under the current order of things. Our American society, our American political and economic systems (democracy and capitalism) stand as iron walls separating us from a life free of alienation and coercion. One doesn't even have to stretch the imagination to see how we run against obstacles impeding our freedom daily: the police, our bosses, the economic system of wage-labor itself, and so on. This is nothing new, every corner of the globe likewise has a myriad of impediments to human freedom, some of which make the American experience seem quite free indeed. But there are many Americas (even within the borders of the United States). Obviously the experiences of a person of color in the poverty stricken slums of St. Louis are vastly different than a white middle class person from the somewhat affluent St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves, where Franzen grew up.
     The interesting thing about this illusive (or elusive) American freedom is that most Americans claim to have it, and the American political culture spends a great deal of time and energy reminding us just how much freedom we have with all of our social, political and economic choices. That is the great irony of this story, the Berglunds, on the surface, seem to have it all. But, underneath they represent the vast majority of Americans that go through the motions and play the part of freedom, but never (or very rarely) actually experience it. Jonathan Franzen has done an impressive job showing the complexity of a successful archetypal American family which will never overcome the imbedded contradictions we all wade through in our contemporary post-modern American culture.

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