Monday, October 4, 2010

Freedom ain't a state like Maine or Virginia

What is odd about Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is that I think it is trying to be a novel about politics, but is actually a novel about sex.

Let me explain. There is the title, which refers to a political concept. And every couple of chapters, one of the characters gets lost in a multi-paragraph reverie about freedom and the Way We Live Now. Except that it is probably safe to say that I am more interested in freedom than about 98% of Franzen's readers, having done all those IHS seminars and all, and I can't actually remember any of the multi-paragraph reveries about freedom. It wasn't that they were bad... I remember inane things I read about freedom very well, thank you very much... but just not interesting enough to stick in my mind for more than ten minutes.

There are also political elements to the plot. One of the main characters, Walter Berglund, is a left-wing environmentalist who runs a land trust that's designed to save the cerulean warbler. His son, Joey, gradually drifts right politically. Joey also gets ensnared in a plot to send defective truck parts to Iraq. One gets the impression that this is supposed to be some kind of point about the moral bankruptcy of the right, except that I got lost wondering why none of these people seemed to have heard of negligence liability.

Anyway, the plot points about politics seemed merely to be a way of moving forward a story that is really about lust and sex. In some ways, the basic story reads like a bad post by a PUA blogger: cute girl (Patty Berglund) feels torn by desire for aloof alpha rock star (Richard Katz) who keeps eliding her grasp; settles instead for beta Nice Guy TM Walter Berglund; and then feels miserable about her choices. Somewhere, some Mystery Method disciple is scrawling "Neg opener" in the margins of this book alongside Patty and Richard's conversations. Ditto the scenes about Walter's son Joey, an alpha-player-in-embryo type who just can't help but get multiple beautiful women to fall head over heels for him.

Except the story woven here is a bit more nuanced and interesting than the PUA guys' narratives. Every time Patty is drawn closer to Richard, the hyper-abrasive aloofness gets to be too much, and she founds herself being drawn back to Walter. It happens once when Patty and Richard travel together to Chicago after college, and again, many years later, after they begin affairs as adults. It's as if the Nice Guy and Bad Boy are yin and yang, opposite sides of the same coin. Richard's admiration and lifelong friendship with Walter also make the narrative more complicated than the typical PUA blogger account of human behavior. It's evident that Richard understands that Walter has qualities that he doesn't and appreciates him for it. True, some might say that Franzen's overly rosy-eyed. But I for one found myself buying in to his creation.

(Headline reference explained here.)

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