Jonathan Franzen Freedom
Harper, 2010

If you happened to have read my response to The Corrections last month, you might well have expected my response to Freedom to appear here sometime in 2020. But although it took me nearly ten years to get around to reading the first, it took only a few weeks for me to make time for the second.

And, no, it wasn’t comfortable. Neither making time for it — in the midst of Canlit Award Season fervour and my current obsession with reading IFOA authors in earnest this month — nor reading it.

But reading it? Finishing it? Non-negotiable.

And now I find my bookish thoughts wandering across the idea of reading Jonathan Franzen’s earlier work? Has anyone? Other fiction, literary essays: surely there are readers who jumped on board his oeuvre long before the 2001 furor surrounding The Corrections?

I’m not one of them, though, so I’m taking in these two novels like bookends. And, as such, it’s easy to sink into what one imagines Jonathan Franzen’s preoccupation throughout those intervening ten years to be: broken and shattered and enduring relationships. There are a lot of interesting parallels and contrasts between the two stories, although even as I say that, I feel I must rush to make clear that the families in each novel are wholly distinct.

There is no way that I could confuse the picnic tables if both fictional families booked space side-by-side at a local park for a reunion. (No way they’d do that either.) But, all the same, there are many thematic connections between the narratives.

For instance, one thing that Chip mentioned in The Corrections could just as easily and truthfully be said, too, of Patty Berglund, whose story opens Freedom.

“And if you sat at the dinner table long enough, whether in punishment or in refusal or simply in boredom, you never stopped siting there. Some part of you sat there all your life.”

Freedom begins with a brief glimpse into the life of a more contemporary Patty, but quickly the narrative slips back in time to Patty’s growing years.

These opening chapters (which constitute nearly 200 pages of the novel)  are constructed as an autobiography, but one told in the third person, which is an interesting approach designed to irrevocably muddle those who find essays about point-of-view in fiction confusing enough with only three options and some omniscience tossed in for good measure.

Patty is not the only central character in this novel, but nearly half of the text is relegated to this autobiography, and the other half is divided amongst other family members. And, after 500 pages, it’s clear that Patty is, in many ways, still sitting at the dinner table, too. Like Chip.

Although Patty’s dining room table is a basketball court. But nobody else in her family is sitting there with her either. Like Chip, she is on her own.

Well, not really. No more than Chip was. Not ‘alone’ technically speaking.

But ‘alone’ in the emotive sense of the word. There are siblings here. And parents. Pairs of them, in fact.

“I thought you understood about parents,” Eliza said [to Patty]. “About not being the person they wanted.”

Her friend, Eliza, was right; even as a teenager, Patty clearly understands that.  And the children in The Corrections understood that too. Parenting can be ugly in Jonathan Franzen’s narratives.

From The Corrections:
“It was the same problem Enid had with Chip and even Gary: her children didn’t match. They didn’t want the things that she and all her friends and all her friends’ children wanted. Her children wanted radically, shamefully different things.”

From Freedom:
“But there are so many other, non-parental errors errors to be related in these pages that it seems just inhumanly painful to dwell on her [mothering] mistakes with [son] Joey as well; the autobiographer fears that it would make her lie down on the floor and never get up.”

Parents are disappointed in children, disappointed in each other’s parenting. Children are disappointed in themselves, disappointed in their siblings, in their parents’ parenting, and in themselves as parents.

Like most of the characters in Freedom, Patty’s husband is fundamentally disappointed, disheartened, and depressed.

“He didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know how to live. Each new thing he encountered in life impelled him in a direction that fully convinced him of its rightness, but then the next new thing loomed up and impelled him in the opposite direction, which also felt right. There was no controlling narrative: he seemed to himself a purely reactive pinball in a game whose only object was to stay alive for staying alive’s sake.”

As a reader, I wished that the reactive pinball could sit down with Gary from The Corrections, so the two of them could have a beer (or twenty) and then split up, scrabble back to their respective narratives and sadnesses.

And what is at the root of this intense dissatisfaction, this debilitating sorrow, this overwhelming sense of emptiness? Here’s Patty’s thought:

“She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.”

And what is at the root of this narrative’s appeal?

For me, the compulsion to read on was similar as it was with The Corrections, because the Berglunds are clearly damaged as they inhabit the pages of Freedom, but as often as they lash out and withdraw from the world, they reach out for something more.

“Patty knew, in her heart, that he was wrong in his impression of her. And the mistake she went on to make, the really big life mistake, was to go along with [his] version of her in spite of knowing that it wasn’t right. He seemed so certain of her goodness that eventually he wore her down.”

It’s simply, and sadly, human.

You might know this story if you’ve read The Corrections.

You might know this story without even cracking open a cover.

It might be one of my favourites for this reading year.