Greatness on the edge of town


Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky was by almost any standard a genius. His exceptional body of work (comprising a broad range that encompassed chamber music, symphonies, ballet and opera, among other genres), exquisite melodies and extraordinary orchestrations left an indelible impression on the world. 

Tchaikovsky was also, by most accounts, tremendously insecure. He went through long bouts of depressive behavior, and worried constantly about his repressed homosexuality. Some of that insecurity is reflected in the redundancy exhibited in many of his works, including his most famous. The old saw about his compositions – why tell your listeners once or twice when you can tell them a hundred times?


That tendency by some legendary artists to bludgeon their audience with repetition of great ideas is not necessarily a fatal one, nor does it contradict genius. And so it is with “Freedom,” the latest opus by St. Louis’ own Jonathan Franzen.

Love it or hate it, “Freedom” cannot be ignored. The opposite of a trifle, the broadly ranging novel demands attention the way that much sophisticated art demands attention, by sheer force of creative will. That Franzen can outwrite much of the known universe is not in question. Whether you merely appreciate “Freedom,” like it or love it, however, will depend largely on how much you mind having the author hovering over your shoulder as you read.

The story of “Freedom” jumps around in space, time and narrative voice, with the Berglund family of St. Paul and its appendages remaining front and center throughout. Former high school jock Patty, as wife, mother and neighborhood diva, cannot exorcise her ultracompetitive demons, which along with her insecurities make her go bananas when she isn’t front and center in her relationships. Her husband Walter, nice guy cum lawyer cum environmentalist cum corporate pawn, never feels fully deserving of Patty, and provides her with unconditional love and attention, until their dissonance means he can’t anymore (at which point he does a hard turn in favor of a young and brilliant associate).

While the Berglunds destroy themselves and each other, with the help of Walter’s longtime best bud Richard, the bad boy musician that controls Patty’s heartstrings, their son Joey develops, to his parents’ chagrin, as an ultra self-reliant, practically Ayn Randish, conservative. He loves but can’t stand his mother, respects but can’t love his father, and bolts the cacophony of home during high school to live next door with his perfectly devoted girlfriend Connie and her pedestrian mother and stepfather.

To describe the characters in more detail here would be folly if not insulting – they are so carefully and idiosyncratically drawn as to be both believable and memorable. Sure, the id, ego and superego might be most prominent in Richard, Joey and Walter, respectively, but it would be an error to leave it at that. They are each expressively and fully fleshed, and Patty – well, suffice it to say she might have been Freud’s problem child.

But the widest swath of literary genius in “Freedom” lies not in the characterizations, which are themselves highly entertaining. No, the main enthrallment is what happens interstitially, how the dots between the actors get connected and erased. Franzen manages to deconstruct and reconstruct relationships as how kids play with Legos, giving the players multiple chances to combine, disengage, and both fail and succeed with the blocks they’ve been given.

But it’s not entirely clear in the “Freedom” world whether failure or success have much meaning or significance at all. The duality of opportunity versus confinement, both imposed and chosen, is what gives “Freedom” both its name and its successful dramatic tension.

Thus, Joey seems to make money effortlessly but his father’s influence invades when he feels guilty selling faulty truck parts that prove fatal to a military contractor; his mother’s when he is introduced to his maternal Jewish lineage that Patty avoids both familially and geographically (for one “Jewish” approach to “Freedom,” see Marc Tracy’s review on; Richard jumps from bed to bed (including, at one point Patty’s) but clearly doesn’t, as Groucho Marx might say, want to be a member of any club that would have him as a member. And puppy dog Walter, as his wife morphs from pleasant though disingenuous modesty to smarmy, crusty sarcasm, reacts with an utterly perturbing confusion of love, loyalty and resentment.

The question isn’t whether the permutations of the myriad relationships in “Freedom” are complex, believable and brilliant (they are). The difficulty lies in Franzen refusing to let them be. For instance, he fusses with the narrative voice by turning a significant portion of the book into Patty’s third-person autobiography, “Mistakes Were Made,” that ultimately and sadly ends up in Walter’s hands and almost takes him down for the count. There’s at least an argument that Patty’s vanities and centrality would speak for themselves without this, and that the device is in some ways akin to clubbing a baby seal.

Then there’s the Tchaikovsky-like length. It is a habit of many great writers to want not to let go of their characters (speaking of great writers with a gift for gab, there are scattered allusions to Tolstoy), and in this Franzen is no exception. He has no doubt lived with the Berglunds et al for quite awhile and wants to tell us why they and their interactions are so very interesting (read: Bonfire of the Vanities). But we already are aware that they’re interesting – telling us so makes them no more so, and sometimes less.

The literary world has to some extent already dubbed “Freedom” a masterpiece. To the extent it is both masterful and “unignorable,” that may well be so. Is it the Next Great American Novel? I myself would opt for the lower case version, and ironically, had Franzen done the same, the capitals would have naturally and necessarily followed.