Things will go badly for Walter Berglund. Jonathan Franzen assures this from the start of Freedom, where he offers a short, succinct sketch of the Berglund family’s slow unraveling from bright beginnings as early gentrifiers of a small St. Paul neighborhood. He then fills in those initial strokes with such detail that he nearly succeeds in masking his ambitious scope, such that his wide sprawl never overreaches. This is a feat for a book called Freedom, which inhabits a post-9/11 playground of the white upper middle class, whose self-conscious, self-analytical, self-obsessed minds attempt to hone in on a concept of happiness born from American entitlement. The Berglunds are often ugly and plainly annoying, almost deserving of their misfortunes, but Franzen succeeds in winning empathy for their imperfection, blind earnestness, and ironic lack of self-awareness. Mistakes will be made, he tells readers early on, leaving them helplessly cringing, watching it happen, and wondering whether they’re next.
Franzen’s darkly comic 2001 novel, The Corrections, afforded a certain tenderness to family dysfunction, but that affection is lacking here. A sadness for America fills Freedom, which is far less funny, apart from a section spent with college freshman Joey Berglund, whose hormones take over any lick of sense he once possessed. But Franzen’s deftness in moving between characters is familiar, as is the precision with which he nails our place and time. He builds a neatly tied family portrait, then spends the rest of Freedom accounting for perspective, tugging in all directions until it comes apart at the seams. The more things fall apart, the more wildly the characters flail, and Franzen sometimes nearly pushes them into complete farce.
The Berglunds’ downfall—it’s almost as if they’re some sordid old bourgeois family, exposed as normal folks—is no one’s fault but their own. Freedom builds on relationships: best and broken friendships, and above all, family, that fixed, first foundation in building an identity. These upbringings and binding relationships don’t determine destiny, though. America’s notion of freedom says we can make our own way. And in Freedom, that’s a liability. Walter and Patty Berglund claim that freedom while squandering it, trying to be good at living, but screwing it up. It’s an endearing catastrophe of sorts, free of schadenfreude and full of good intentions. Things might end badly for Walter, but with a gentle, contented hope that makes Freedom a joy to read.