Past Imperfect Tense
Trade Paperbacks is proud to welcome our first official contributor, Karl Wirsing. Below, Karl offers an acute analysis of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” along with, be warned, a couple of plot revelations that might count as spoilers. Enjoy.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Franzen shows us the right way to be wrong all the time
You may take our lives, but you’ll never take our Freedom unless you live near DC and know Karl
I PUT THIS BOOK DOWN A FEW WEEKS AGO WITH AN UGLY FEELING OF SELF-AWARENESS. I saw shades of myself in many of the characters — never an exact match, but strains of personality that looked too familiar and, through Franzen’s eyes, a little too unflattering. And then as I began the human process of justifying and excusing myself as ‘different’ from Franzen’s potential targets, I felt that ugliness intensify. But in these spiraling reactions I found what has proven, to me, the most enduring theme and cultural critique in “Freedom”: the failures of self-righteousness.
Every character in this novel is driven by an imagined sense of self, a quest of personal identity at once unattainable and infinitely destructive. Patty, largely ignored by her parents, devotes herself to a fanatical closeness with her own children. Walter, the son of an underachieving alcoholic father and a worked-to-death mother, swears off drink and determines to show his own wife an unfaltering, if stifling, patience. Richard, careless of responsibility and social expectations, stays true to form and betrays the one loyalty and friend he loved.
None of these characters, by any stretch, is perfect to Franzen. Yet each clings to his ideology without compromise, as if to give up an inch of conviction is to lose your entire grasp on reality and self. This is who I am. I cannot deviate. I cannot be anything else.
“Freedom” wages a relentless assault on this cult of ‘perfection.’ It creates the most sustained tension in the novel, a wrestling match between two warring ideas: the person you believe you’re cultivating and protecting, and the actual person who’s being created by what’s happening to and around you.
Franzen doesn’t moralistically suffocate readers with this theme; much of the takeaway, no doubt, will depend on the baggage each reader brings. For me, it took days and weeks after reading before my own interpretations solidified. What surfaced was a sense that by overvaluing your beliefs, you become a prisoner to your perspective and wall yourself off from empathy. When you can’t allow the possibility of being wrong, you force yourself to be defensive about always being right. If you can’t be a participant or the perpetrator, you have to be the victim—and the mental gymnastics required to preserve that fiction are all-consuming and ruinous. After all, we learn on the first page that the Berglunds are heading for a reckoning. The unfolding pages simply confirm that everyone is full of shit to some degree.
I will say that for Franzen’s characters, life and identity become a bit too linear and unswerving in this construction. Once someone decides on a trajectory — Patty sleeping with Richard, for instance — she plunges after it with an almost morbid dedication and purity. You don’t get a sense that anyone can escape his fate or the disaster awaiting him. Catastrophe becomes the only catalyst of growth or redemption.
That’s a dark reading, to be sure, although I don’t think the tone or ultimate message is hopeless. I’ll spare you a clichéd reading of Franzen’s title, and how the only route to self-awareness is by “freeing” yourself of self-righteousness and the burdens of perfection, and by (even cheesier) getting out of your own way. But it’s clear that for all of Franzen’s characters, the clearest path to stability and sanity is by way of a thorough humbling. No one escapes intact or unscarred, yet many still achieve a level of happiness after they acknowledge and accept their various failings — or at least accept the acceptability of imperfection.
Does that leave you with the warm fuzziness about our lives and world? Not really, and I can tell you it planted a nagging seed of doubt in my mind: What kind of humbling am I due?