Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, Fourth Estate, RRP£20, 500 pages

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is (if one discounts The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s posthumous epic of depression) the most eagerly awaited American literary novel of the past few years. It’s been almost a decade since The Corrections transformed Franzen into an international star, garnering prizes and a sales-generating dose of controversy after he balked at Oprah Winfrey’s invitation to appear on her Book Club, worrying aloud that it would alienate male readers.

Freedom stands firmly in the tradition of its predecessor. Once again, we’re presented with an American family whose strained relationships and individual troubles come to stand for bigger social and political questions. The book’s sheer size signals it as a statement – and though it’s not without faults, Freedom is undoubtedly an achievement, standing head and shoulders above the host of recent American novels which (post-Corrections) have attempted to hold the same territory.

We meet Walter and Patty Berglund, following their relationship from 1970s college romance towards a seemingly intractable mid-life crisis. The narrative sends tendrils out into the lives of their children, their friends and their neighbours in a rapidly gentrifying area of the city of St Paul.

Walter is a doggedly principled Minnesotan who has invented himself (like most of the characters in Freedom) in opposition to his parents, particularly his cruel, alcoholic father. An early concern with overpopulation, and a love for birds, leads him to a career as an environmentalist.

Patty, the lone jock in a family of culture-vultures, is a talented college basketball player whose career is ended by injury. Her thwarted energies, along with a legacy of parental betrayal, lead her towards marriage with Walter, despite an attraction for his college room-mate, the mercurial and charismatic Richard Katz, whose career as a rock star counterpoints the Berglunds’ narrative of muted domesticity.

Freedom is a book that examines its title from many angles. In one of many beautifully handled side-narratives, Franzen sketches Walter’s immigrant grandfather Einar, a truculent Swede who finds in Minnesota a dream of liberty that eventually curdles. “The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom,” he writes, “is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.” This observation is key to the novel’s rather bilious take on the American psychological and spiritual condition. America, it seems to wish to say, is a country built on a refusal to accept limitations, which is both its strength and its great flaw.

Beyond the personal, Franzen is concerned with freedom’s many meanings within American culture and politics. The Berglunds’ son Joey reacts to his liberal parents by becoming a Republican and working for a private contractor, profiting from the war in Iraq. Joey’s journey into the crude libertarianism and ethical vacuity of the Bush years is set beside Walter’s own attempt to free the planet from the burden of human civilisation, and to free himself from a life-long burden of guilt. Does freedom just mean freedom from something – responsibility (as it is for the self-centred, promiscuous, itinerant Katz), from fear, or pain, or the relentlessness of consumer society? Or is it freedom for something – to build a family, a career, a better world?

Above all, Freedom turns on the question of having children. In a society obsessed with family as a moral and even political virtue, what does it mean to remain childless? Is it a noble renunciation, a recognition of the fundamental nihilism of further populating a world in which there are already too many people? Or is it cowardice, a failure to take adult responsibility? The ideology of limitless economic growth is much on Franzen’s mind, particularly in its effect on the environment. Is the drive for growth and reproduction a necessity or a dangerous illusion? Is it the primary engine of freedom, or should it be limited in the name of some greater freedom – that of planetary survival, and the “right” of other species to reproduce and grow?

Franzen’s wish to tackle complex questions through the medium of the realist novel sometimes feels strained but, by and large, his characters can bear the weight he places on their shoulders. The book is marred by the decision to present part of it as an “autobiography” written by Patty at the behest of her therapist. Patty’s voice is exactly the same as the rest of novel, and we never believe that she has the eloquence or self-awareness to analyse the world in this way.

Franzen’s own allegiance to the novel’s realist tradition (in Freedom he makes more than one reference to Tolstoy’s War and Peace) has drawn fire from those critics who see it as an exhausted literary form. Freedom doesn’t quite answer this charge, but is at its best when most realist, losing its way slightly in the occasional passages when it shades into satire or melodrama. Whatever the debates around the aesthetics of the novel, Freedom seems certain to enhance, rather than diminish, its author’s reputation.

Hari Kunzru is the author of ‘My Revolutions’ (Hamish Hamilton)

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