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Breaking Down the Broken Down Characters in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (Part 1)

Midway into the Berglunds' unravelling, we tackle the fabulous self-destruction, potential misogyny, and stomach-turning pathos of Freedom.

Midway into the Berglund family's unravelling, we tackle the fabulous self-destruction, potential misogyny, and stomach-turning pathos of Freedom.

For our first ever book club, GOOD is Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Today, Siobhan O'Connor and Patrick James offer their analysis of the neurosis, heartache, and mental unraveling in the book's the first 290 pages. Please feel free to offer questions, insights, or scathing take-downs of our analysis in the comments, but (this is important) please refrain from discussing anything that happens after page 290.

Without further adieu, here we go.

PATRICK JAMES: What we have here looks like a story of gentrification, home-building (nesting, even), and ultimately, the unraveling of a family.

SIOBHAN O'CONNOR: So I hear from the flap. I don't think we've seen the extent of the unraveling yet, which is sort of scary. Book is pretty depressing already.

PJ: I read the flap as well. Would you agree that the Berglunds are introduced as (or maybe imagine themselves as) being somehow exceptional? At the start, I mean.

SO: Exceptional in their midsts for sure, but I think they're also a really familiar bunch—kind of a Park Slope in the early years stereotype.

PJ: Big time. In "Good Neighbors," they are awesome cyphers of gentrification. The type of people who imagine themselves as either bucking trends or at least ahead of the curve. But they're also painfully ordinary.

SO: Totally, which, I mean, isn't obviously exceptional at all, especially not if you live in Brooklyn. Same stuff that goes on in every dysfunctional family in the country, in a way.

PJ: I like that they live on Barrier Street, which, according to Google Maps, appears not to be a real street in St. Paul, suggesting that the name might mean something: barrier, blockade, end of the road, that sort of thing.

SO: Smartypants!

PJ: That is, unfortunately, is the extent of my analysis.

SO: I wouldn't call it subtle, and yet I didn't notice it. How literary of Franzen.

PJ: Indeed. "Do I like them?" I think that's a question a lot of readers ask themselves when dealing with Franzen's characters. Do you like them? Do you like Patty?

SO: I was thinking about this last night and here's a thought I had: There's this weird tension where I feel compassion for the characters in a way because I think Franzen himself doesn't like them. Of course, he wrote them, and he's eliciting that compassion, so maybe it's all by design. But liking them is not even a factor for me. I don't like any one of them.

PJ: In the world of Franzen's books, especially in Freedom so far, it seems that if you get to know any person well enough, s/he inevitably will disappoint you. I don't think I disagree with that, sadly. When you get down to people's actual motivations for what they do and don't do, and the actual through processes we use to make decisions, people can be fairly shitty. Franzen taps into that. What he does so marvelously is allow us to still care deeply about those shitty decision makers.

SO: Yeah, I think he reflects something that's just very human, which is that when you know anyone inside and out, where they are coming from, what traumas or joys have formed their person, you can make sense of anything they do, no matter how horrible. Patty is a great example of that, probably because we know her the best at this point.

PJ: She's gotten the most ink. How do you think he writes as a woman, in Patty's autobiography section?

SO: Which is actually a biography, since it's written in the third person. Anyway, except for a couple of asides—the little ed's notes by Patty—it felt like same book I was reading before and after. Which is to say I don't think it works as an autobiography. That being said, he wrote teenage Patty so well that it blew my mind—for a man to get a young woman that well.

PJ: Interesting. I felt as though, although the style is relatively consistent, there were notable shifts in voice from Patty's section to the section that followed Richard and the one that followed Joey. And yes, teenage Patty and college Patty were so compelling. The brutal honesty of something like recognizing Eliza's toxicity yet admitting that she enjoyed the adoration ... that struck me as quite human. The entire episode dealing with the rape, from start to finish, was gut-wrenching.

SO: Yeah absolutely. Also her complicated relationship with her dad, who supposedly loved her more than anything, but made her feel terrible.

PJ: Terrible! I love how casually Franzen discloses brutal details: "As far as actual sex goes, Patty's first experience of it was being raped at a party when she was seventeen by a boarding-school senior named Ethan Post."

SO: So here's the elephant in the room: Do you think the book is misogynistic?

PJ: It's hard to say. Patty makes awful decisions. But in the scenes, say, that follow the rape, you get all of this teeter-tottering and moral licensing—Patty's father warning her that legal proceedings would be more invasive than the rape itself; Patty feeling violated but noting that she'd had basketball practices that were more violent or painful; her inability to imagine Ethan in a prison jumpsuit; Patty's mother subtly betraying her. There's a complexity there that belies misogyny. It's so terribly human. Maybe it's just misanthropic?

SO: Maybe. And yet Franzen is so unforgiving of Patty. She is without a single trait where you can say oh well, she's got that going for her: Her attention on her son is borderline inappropriate. She's a martyr. She emasculates her husband. She cheats on him. She lies. She's a messy drunk.

PJ: All true. And yet when reading this book, I still feel she deserves some form of justice or happiness or at the very least, to keep on trucking. And, as Richard notes some time after his band has found success, the best years might still be ahead of both of them.

SO: That's a good point. There's still a sense of rooting for her.

PJ: And I would argue that Franzen treats her so harshly, or doesn't give her any breaks, because he feels a deep kinship with the bad decisions she makes. Maybe not the specific ones, but you get the impression he knows a thing or two about being fabulously self-destructive.

SO: Or he had a nutty mother.

PJ: Sure. Or he had people that were close to him that did terrible things to him or vice versa.

SO: Definitely. I don't know if you ever read Patricia Highsmith's murder mysteries, but they're great, and they're full of ordinary people who do terrible things to other people, like kill them, for instance.

PJ: I've only read Ripley. I felt deep compassion for Tom Ripley, and he was a sociopath. And a chameleon. And a murderer. Highsmith is an interesting comparison. In addition to suburban-focused writers like Updike, Franzen also gets compared to David Foster Wallace, and I can't tell if it's because they were friends or because they're actually similar writers. The language thing just isn't comparable. And really, comparing any writer's use of language to DFW's is an exercise in making people infinitely less interested in anything you say next.

SO: My eyes actually just glazed over, yes.

PJ: Ha. And but so I agree, yet maybe there is a similarity, in the gigantic quality, of this book. It's not massive at the same level, but in Freedom we get so much insight and confession and neurosis and specificity regarding the nature of erections or the motivation behind glasses of wine and this insistence on opening old wounds—to the point of being disgusted almost—and then there's this crazy inertia, and an episode reaches the end, and you feel so sad. And that reminds me of reading Infinite Jest. Even though the sentences are different.

SO: I find his regular insertion of boner descriptions kind of strange, to be honest.

PJ: Well, yes. I don't enjoy the boners in and of themselves.

SO: It is interesting what, um, stirs them though—usually something bad or a feeling of competition.

PJ: Sure. Seriously, though, the episodes in this book strike marvelous cords in their closing moments: the line about Patty rather enjoying Walter's kiss after running back to him; Joey taking another and another and another hit; Walter "clearing the air" with Richard. Regardless of the many indictments of these characters, you can't help but feel like crying, or at least I can't, at those sections.

SO: Yeah, me too. Or actual crying instead of just feeling like it.

PJ: And each character experiences, at some point in each of their sections, a kind of eye-opening freedom: Patty's freedom to sleep with Richard, which is momentarily liberating but ultimately crushing. Walter's freedom to make a buck. Joey's freedom from Connie. But they all end up seeming trapped again and then free again and then trapped again.

SO: Oh interesting. I'd say Joey's freedom from his mother!

PJ: You're right.

SO: I guess it's both.

PJ: Lousy women. Maybe the book is misogynistic.

SO: Every woman in the book is lousy. The men are imperfect, but they are not quite so lousy.

PJ: You might have a point.

SO: Walter seems to get away with a lot more than the other characters. Maybe because his transgressions are political, as opposed to personal.

PJ: Well, at this point, Patty has in a sense "gotten away with" the cheating. But as for Walter getting away with things, his pathologies result in inaction, rather than, say, leaving home or sleeping with the most off limits person in your life. However, "mountaintops" are pretty big things. So he could fail pretty stupendously in the next few hundred pages. What do you make of his corruption and his moral licensing?

SO: It's one of the plotlines I am most curious about. It seems too early to tell, because we haven't really gotten into it. So far we know he is dangerously close to something inappropriate with his assistant, which I actually think will not happen. But I want more politics.

PJ: The combination of his sacrificing his beliefs and Patty's motherly tailspin so marvelously fly in the face of the (a) exceptionalism and (b) potential that we briefly saw of them at the outset. Given enough frustration, seemingly righteous people compromise their ethics for selfish reasons—that seems to be a running theme—the sad reality of "freedom" being that when one has the opportunity to make a choice, one might do something dumb. We haven't mentioned Richard's transgressions. He has maybe behaved the worst, and is the most loathsome, but his personality is nevertheless the most compelling. He's floundered and suffered dearly, but he hasn't written about himself in an aggressively self-loathing fashion on the suggestion of his therapist, or expressed his suffering to others.

SO: He's not apologetic for who he is, is probably why he's more compelling.

PJ: That is a far more concise way to say that.

SO: He is such a type, though: the asshole who admits his assholeness, which gets him off the hook. Self-awareness goes a long way.

PJ: Yes but there's a chance he doesn't get off the hook, though, when Walter discovers the extent of what he's done. Or, maybe worse, he will get away with it, and Walter will fail by accepting it and punishing himself.

And everyone will be sad.

SO: So that's also a running theme. And that life is hard, and people are looking for a break.

PJ: And because we don't have some person who consistently makes the right choice, no one is beyond forgiveness. At least as of page 290.


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