Freedom (Franzen)

Jonathan Franzen, 2010
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
608 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780312576462

Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul—the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter's dreams. Together with Walter—environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man—she was doing her small part to build a better world.

But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz—outré rocker and Walter's college best friend and rival—still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become "a very different kind of neighbor," an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street's attentive eyes?

In his first novel since The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen has given us an epic of contemporary love and marriage. Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire.

In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom's characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—August 17, 1959
Where—Western Springs, Illinois, USA
Education—B.A., Swarthmore College; Fulbright Scholar at Freie Universitat in Berlin
Awards—National Book Award; Whiting Writer's Award; James Tait Memorial Prize;
  American Academy's Berlin Prize
Currently—lives in New York, New York, and Boulder Creek, California

Jonathan Earl Franzen is an American novelist and essayist. His 2001 novel, The Corrections, a sprawling, satirical family drama, drew widespread critical acclaim, earning Franzen a National Book Award. His next two novels, Freedom (2010) and Purity (2015) garnered similar high praise. Freedom led to an appearance on the cover of Time magazine, and both novels continue to elicit the epithet "Great American Novelist." 

His next two novels, Freedom (2010) and Purity (2015) garnered similar praise. Freedom led to an appearance on the cover of Time magazine, and both novels continue to elicit the epithet "Great American Novelist."

In recent years, Franzen has been recognized for his blunt opinions on contemporary culture:

  • social networking, such as Twitter ("the ultimate irresponsible medium")
  • the proliferation of e-books ("just not permanent enough")
  • the disintegration of Europe ("The technicians of finance are making the decisions there. It has very little to do with democracy or the will of the people.")
  • the self-destruction of America ("almost a rogue state").

Early life and education
Franzen is the son of Irene Super and Earl T. Franzen. He was born in Western Springs, Illinois, but grew up in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri.

He majored in German at Swarthmore College, studying in Munich during his junior year. (While there he met Michael A. Martone, on whom he would later base the Walter Berglund character in Freedom.) After his 1981 graduation, Franzen became a Fulbright Scholar at the Freie Universitat in Berlin. He speaks fluent German as a result of these experiences.

Franzen married Valerie Cornell in 1982 and moved to Boston to pursue a career as a novelist. Five years later, the couple moved to New York where, in 1988, Franzen sold his first novel The Twenty-Seventh City.

Early novels
The Twenty-Seventh City is set in St. Louis and follows the city's decline from what had been its place in the late 19th century as the country's "fourth city." The novel was well received and established Franzen as an author to watch. In a conversation with novelist Donald Antrim for Bomb Magazine, Franzen described the book as "a conversation with the literary figures of my parents' generation[,] the great sixties and seventies Postmoderns." In a Paris Review article, he referred to himself as

...a skinny, scared kid trying to write a big novel. The mask I donned was that of a rhetorically airtight, extremely smart, extremely knowledgeable middle-aged writer.

Strong Motion (1992), Franzen's second novel, focuses on the dysfunctional Holland family and uses seismic events on the U.S. East Coast as a metaphor for quakes that can disrupt the veneer of family life. Franzen has said the book is based on the ideas of "science and religion—two violently opposing systems of making sense in the world."

The Corrections
The Corrections, Franzen's third novel, came out in 2001. A novel of social criticism, it garnered considerable acclaim, winning both the 2001 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2002 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. The book was also a finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award, and the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (won by Richard Russo for Empire Falls).

The Corrections was selected for Oprah Winfrey's book club in 2001. Franzen initially participated in the selection, sitting down for a lengthy interview with Oprah, but later expressed unease. In an interview on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, he worried that the Oprah logo on the cover would dissuade men from reading the book:

So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry—I'm sorry that it's, uh—I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I've heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say "If I hadn't heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it." Those are male readers speaking.

Soon afterward, Franzen's invitation to appear on Oprah's show was rescinded. Winfrey announced,

Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict. We have decided to skip the dinner and we're moving on to the next book.

These events gained Franzen and his novel widespread media attention. The Corrections soon became one of the decade's best-selling works of literary fiction. At the National Book Award ceremony, Franzen thanked Winfrey "for her enthusiasm and advocacy on behalf of The Corrections."

In 2011, it was announced that Franzen would write a multi-part television adaptation of The Corrections for HBO in collaboration with director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and The Whale). The project was canceled, however, because it was feared that the "challenging narrative, which moves through time and cuts forwards and back" might make it "difficult...for viewers to follow."

After the release of Freedom in 2010, Franzen appeared on Fresh Air. He had drawn what he described as a "feminist critique" for the attention that male authors receive over female authors—a critique he agreed with.

While promoting the book, Franzen became the first American author to appear on the cover of Time magazine since Stephen King in 2000. The photo appeared alongside the headline "Great American Novelist."

In an interview in Manchester, England, in October 2010, Franzen talked about his choice of a title for the book:

I think the reason I slapped the word on the book proposal I sold three years ago without any clear idea of what kind of book it was going to be is that I wanted to write a book that would free me in some way. And I will say this about the abstract concept of "freedom"; it’s possible you are freer if you accept what you are and just get on with being the person you are, than if you maintain this kind of uncommitted I’m free-to-be-this, free-to-be-that, faux freedom.

On September 17, 2010, Oprah Winfrey announced that Jonathan Franzen's Freedom would be an Oprah book club selection, the first of the last season of The Oprah Winfrey Show. On December 6, 2010, he appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote Freedom where they discussed that book and the controversy over his reservations about her picking The Corrections and what that would entail.

Purity, released in 2015, is described by the publisher as a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents. The novel centers on a young woman named Purity Tyler, or Pip, who sets out to uncover the identity of her father, whom she has never known. The narrative stretches from contemporary America to South America to East Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall; it hinges on the mystery of Pip's family history and her relationship with a charismatic hacker and whistleblower.

Like Franzen's two previous novels, Purity was published to strong reviews: New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote that it was Franzen's "most intimate novel yet" and that the author "has added a new octave to his voice." Time called it "magisterial," while Ron Charles of the Washington Post referred to Franzen's "ingenious plotting" and perfectly balanced fluency." Sam Tannenhaus of the New Republic said of Franzen that "his vision unmasks the world in which we actually live."

Other works
In 2002, following The Corrections, Franzen published How to Be Alone, a collection of essays including "Perchance To Dream," his 1996 Harper's article about the state of the novel in contemporary culture. In 2006, he published his memoir The Discomfort Zone (2006), recounting the influence his childhood and adolescence have had in his creative life.

In 2012, two years after his release of Freedom, Franzen published Farther Away, another collection of essays on such topics as his love of birds, his friendship with David Foster Wallace, and his thoughts on technology.

In various lectures given while on tour, Franzen has mentioned four perennial questions often asked of him that he finds annoying:

  1. "Who are your influences?"
  2. "What time of day do you work, and what do you write on?"
  3. "I read an interview with an author who says that, at a certain point in writing a novel, the characters 'take over' and tell him what to do. Does this happen to you, too?"
  4. "Is your fiction autobiographical?"

Personal life
Franzen and Valerie Cornell separated in 1994 and are now divorced. Franzen still lives part of the year in New York City but also spends time in Boulder Creek, California. While in California, he lives with his girlfriend, writer Kathy Chetkovich.

In 2010, Franzen's glasses were stolen, then ransomed for $100,000, at an event in London celebrating the launch of Freedom. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/7/2015.)

Book Reviews
Jonathan Franzen's galvanic new novel, Freedom, showcases his impressive literary toolkit—every essential storytelling skill, plus plenty of bells and whistles—and his ability to throw open a big, Updikean picture window on American middle-class life. With this book, he's not only created an unforgettable family, he's also completed his own transformation from a sharp-elbowed, apocalyptic satirist focused on sending up the socio-economic-political plight of this country into a kind of 19th-century realist concerned with the public and private lives of his characters.... Franzen has written his most deeply felt novel yet—a novel that turns out to be both a compelling biography of a dysfunctional family and an indelible portrait of our times.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom, like his previous one, The Corrections, is a masterpiece of American fiction. The two books have much in common. Once again Franzen has fashioned a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life.... Like all great novels, Freedom does not just tell an engrossing story. It illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author's profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew.
Sam Tanenhaus - New York Times Book Review

Freedom, his new book, and The Corrections, its predecessor, are at the same time engrossing sagas and scathing satires, and both books are funny, sad, cranky, revelatory, hugely ambitious, deeply human and, at times, truly disturbing. Together, they provide a striking and quite possibly enduring portrait of America in the years on either side of the turn of the 21st century.... His writing is so gorgeous.... Franzen is one of those exceptional writers whose works define an era and a generation, and his books demand to be read.
Harper Barnes - St. Louis Post-Dispatch

A lavishly entertaining account of a family at war with itself, and a brilliant dissection of the dissatisfactions and disappointments of contemporary American life... Compelling.... Freedom, though frequently funny, is ultimately tender: its emotional currency is both the pain and the pleasure that that word implies.... A rare pleasure, an irresistible invitation to binge-read.... That it also grapples with a fundamental dilemma of modern middle-class America—namely: Is it really still OK to spend your life asserting your unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, when the rest of the world is in such a state?—is what makes it something wonderful. If Freedom doesn’t qualify as a Great American Novel for our time, then I don’t know what would.... The reason to celebrate him is not that he is doing something new but that he is doing something old, presumed dead—and doing it brilliantly. Freedom bids for a place alongside the great achievements of his predecessors, not his contemporaries; it belongs on the same shelf as John Updike’s Rabbit, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. It is the first Great American Novel of the post-Obama era
Benjamin Secher - Telegraph (UK)

It’s refreshing to see a novelist who wants to engage the questions of our time in the tradition of 20th-century greats like John Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis.... [This] is a book you’ll still be thinking about long after you’ve finished reading it.
Patrick Condon - Associated Press

[A] great novel.... While his contemporaries content themselves with small books about nothing much or big books about comics, Franzen delivers the massive, old-school jams. It's not that Franzen's prose makes other writers seem untalented; it's that he makes them seem so lazy, so irrelevant, so lacking in the kind of chutzpah we once expected from our best authors. Freedom doesn't name check War and Peace for nothing. It's making a claim for shelf space among the kind of books that the big dogs used to write. The kind they called important. The kind they called greats.
Benjamin Alsup - Esquire

 [T]he first question facing Franzen's feverishly awaited follow-up is whether it can find its own voice.... In short: yes, it does, and in a big way. [W]here the book stands apart is that...Franzen tries to account for his often stridently unlikable characters and find where they (and we) went wrong, arriving at—incredibly—genuine hope.
Publishers Weekly

[A] sprawling, darkly comic new novel. The nature of personal freedom, the fluidity of good and evil, the moral relativism of nearly everything—Franzen takes on these thorny issues...a penchant for smart, deceptively simple, and culturally astute writing. —Susanne Wells, P.L. of Cincinnati & Hamilton Cty
Library Journal

Discussion Questions
1. Jonathan Franzen refers to freedom throughout the novel, including the freedom of Iraqis to become capitalists, Joey's parents attempt to give him an unencumbered life, an inscription on a building at Jessica s college that reads USE WELL THY FREEDOM, and alcoholic Mitch, who is a free man. How do the characters spend their freedom? Is it a liberating or destructive force for them? Which characters are the least free?

2. Freedom contains almost cinematic descriptions of the characters dwelling places, from the house in St. Paul to Abigail's eclectic Manhattan apartment. How do the homes in Freedom reflect the personalities of their occupants? Where do Walter and Patty feel most at home? Which of your homes has been most significant in your life?

3. As a young woman, Patty is phenomenally strong on the basketball court yet vulnerable in relationships, especially with her workaholic parents, her friend Eliza, and the conflicted duo of Richard and Walter. What did her rapist, Ethan Post, teach her about vulnerability? After the rape, what did her father and the coaches attempt to teach her about strength?

4. What feeds Richard and Walter's lifelong cycle of competition and collaboration? If you were Patty, would you have made the road trip with Richard? What does Freedom say about the repercussions of college, not only for Walter and Patty but also for their children?

5. How would you characterize Patty's writing? How does her storytelling style compare to the narrator s voice in the rest of the novel? If Walter had written a memoir, what might he have said about his victories, and his suffering?

6. Which tragicomic passages in Freedom made you laugh? Which characters elicited continual sadness and sympathy in you? How does Franzen balance poignant moments with absurdity?

7. Discuss the nature of attraction, both in the novel and in your own experience. What does it take to be desirable in Freedom? In the novel, how do couples sustain intense attraction for each other over many phases of their lives?

8. Does history repeat itself throughout Walter's ancestry, with his Swedish grandfather, Einar, who built roads, loathed communism and slow drivers, and was cruel to his wife; his father, Gene, a war hero with fantasies of success in the motel business; and his mother, Dorothy, whose cosmopolitan family was Walter s salvation? What do all the characters in the novel want from their parents? How do their relationships with their parents affect their relationships with lovers?

9. After her father s death, Patty asks her mother why she ignored Patty s success in sports, even though Joyce was a driven woman who might have relished her daughter's achievements. She doesn't get a satisfactory answer; Joyce vaguely says that she wasn't into sports. Why do you think Patty did not garner as much attention as her sisters did? How did your opinion of Veronica and Abigail shift throughout the novel? Does Patty treat Jessica the same way her parents treated her?

10. How is Lalitha different from the other characters in the novel? How does her motivation for working with the Cerulean Mountain Trust compare to Walter's? Does Walter relate to the cerulean warbler on some level?

11. What accounts for the differences between Joey and Jessica? Is it simply a matter of genes and temperament, or does gender matter in their situation?

12. What does Joey want and get from Jenna and Connie? What do they want and get from him?

13. Did Carol and Blake evolve as parents? What sort of life do you predict for their twin daughters?

14. Near the end of the novel, Franzen describes Walter s relationship with Bobby the cat as a sort of troubled marriage. Was their divorce inevitable? When Patty is eventually able to serve as neighborhood peacemaker, even negotiating a truce with Linda Hoffbauer, what does this say about her role in Walter's life? Does she dilute his sense of purpose and principle, or does she keep him grounded in reality?

15. How would you answer the essential question raised by Walter's deal with the Texas rancher Vin Haven: What is the best way to achieve environmental conservation?

16. Consider the novel s epigraph, taken from Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. The lines are spoken by Paulina in the final act, after she learns the fate of her dead husband. She receives the news while surrounded by happy endings for the other characters. The most obvious parallel is to Walter, but who else might be reflected in these lines?

17. What unique truths emerge in Freedom? In what ways does this novel enhance themes (such as love and commitment, family angst, the intensity of adolescence, and the individual against the giant corporate, governmental, and otherwise) featured in Franzen's previous works, including his nonfiction?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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