- More Human Trouble
Although Jonathan Franzen has been laboring in the fields of fiction for some twenty-five years, he first appeared on the national radar in 2001 with the publication of The Corrections. The message of his third novel wasn't new, but Franzen delivered it with irresistible authority. An entire slew of domestic values prized and nurtured from the depression-ridden 1930s through the postwar 1950s was no longer viable. Steadfastness, prudence, self-discipline, obedience to the norms mirrored by one's neighbors' lives (or at least by the stories such neighbors told of their lives)—all this had become, for the younger generation, unbearable, and the struggle to throw it off, in Franzen's hands, is mind-bendingly funny. His prose is pitch perfect for the bitchy rhythms of family squabble. Franzen's best work seems to grow out of several lifetimes of penal/familial servitude. [End Page xliv]
Now we have Freedom—a title that sounds America's most hackneyed value, the one that galvanizes our wars abroad and corrodes our peace at home. Franzen sounds out freedom in a range of percussive variations—freedom as a neurotic force field, both psychological in its inner workings and global in its outer effects. There is, first, the fantasized freedom of escaping from one's family. To be born into a family is a common enough fate, but for Franzen its constrictive consequences seem illimitable. Family is like Crazy Glue: a drop imposes lifelong bonding. Franzen's people are inextricably relational, floundering in relations both sought and inherited. Try as they might, they cannot penetrate deeper than their own social embeddedness and discover something free-standing and uniquely their own.
Few people grow up in Freedom, though this does not prevent them from begetting offspring. Inasmuch as immaturity seems radical rather than relative, Franzen is nonjudgmental. He explores dysfunction so compellingly because he sees no alternative to it. Being "good"—a good parent, a good child—remains mandatory but impossible. Freud's superego saturates Franzen's canvas. The backgrounded labor of Patty Berglund's shrink enables her revised sense of herself. More deeply backgrounded are the years, one suspects, of psychiatric counsel and imagination making this novel possible—making it liberatingly funny. No character Franzen attends to escapes the essential bourgeois commandment: Behave thyself! However hard they try, they fail. Every post-1950s zeitgeist they have listened to—and Franzen knows them all: sex, drugs, rock music, far-out political and environmental groups—tells them to break free, break their parents' laws. No matter, deep down, the law still lodges in them, gnawing away, thwarted and vengeful.
It is therefore no surprise that illicit sex possesses a burning energy in Freedom, and Franzen is drawn to its capacity to derange its carrier. An animal endowment, sex is "prophetic"—it knows what it knows, and (like Freud's unconscious) it never forgets. If characters ignore the insistent sexual directives rising in them, the pain inflicted is unremitting. Written a decade later than The Corrections, Freedom "knows" that sex will not last forever. All the youthful humping seems shadowed by the coming autumn. In The Corrections the parents were distant enough from the younger writer's imagination to escape his sexual lens (it would have been too awful to visit Alfred and Enid in the bedroom). But Freedom explores sexuality from fifteen to fifty, as an urge fully (de)formative in the adults especially. It seems more frenetic and focused here—more plot-shaping—precisely because it will not last forever.
The brilliance of Freedom is often registered at the level of specific phrases and sentences. These are usually nihilistically perceptive: the mind behind these sentences is attached to (in need of defending) so little that would bias its grasp that it is able to enter (corrosively) the foibles of those it pursues and to show us what they do not (cannot) see about themselves. In Franzen's imaginary world we cannot help being wounded and wounding in turn. This involves [End Page xlv] a good deal of discomfort—heading toward shame—that ensues when...