With the recent Franzen-induced (but largely Franzen-irrelevant) fracas about the critical establishment’s coverage of women authors, one important gender-related point has been largely overlooked: Patty Berglund, the central female character in Franzen’s latest novel, is one of the most fully realized women in recent American fiction.
A monolithic Midwestern family saga, “Freedom” begins with Franzen’s characteristically arch tone—impeccably observed satirical portraits of suburbia and its inhabitants, hilarious and unforgiving: “There had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.” He keeps a scientific remove from his subjects: “There were people with whom her style of self-deprecation didn’t sit well—who detected a kind of condescension in it, as if…[she] were too obviously trying to spare the feelings of less accomplished homemakers,” he writes of Patty, Berglund wife and mother. And with the cool reserve of Thornton Wilder’s Stage Manager, he reports on the sexual habits of the youngest Berglund: “When exactly Connie and Joey started fucking wasn’t known.” (An avid birder in his extra-literary life, Franzen could be describing the family lives of sparrows, assuming he didn’t care for sparrows much). Franzen has a superhuman eye for detail, and he finds endless targets for his smugly unforgiving commentary; were the next 500-plus pages to follow in a similarly critical vein, “Freedom” would be a coldly comic condemnation-by-ethnography.
But the first chapter is only the scaffolding for what turns out to be a stunningly (and unexpectedly) compassionate novel. Franzen’s compulsive cataloguing of his characters’ inconsistencies, hypocrisies and narcissisms—relentlessly smirking in wide-angle—renders them nuanced, rich and arrestingly human in close-up.
In a move that would seem gratingly gimmicky if it weren’t so effective, Patty narrates much of her own personal history in “Mistakes Were Made: Autobiography of Patty Berglund by Patty Berglund (Composed at Her Therapist’s Suggestion),” a third-person self-portrait which accounts for a good third of the novel. With her trademark self-deprecating understatement, Patty gives us her Westchester childhood (“Her father, Ray Emerson, was a lawyer and amateur humorist whose repertory included fart jokes and mean parodies of his children’s teachers, neighbors, and friends”), her high school years (“as far as actual sex goes, Patty’s first experience of it was being raped at a party”), and her refuge in team sports (“It was from these wonderful coaches that Patty learned discipline, patience, focus, teamwork, and the ideals of good sportsmanship that helped make up for her morbid competitiveness and low self-esteem”). We get her Big Ten escape to Minnesota, where she plays second-team All-American basketball and meets both Walter and Richard, the Macalester roommates who will be the romantic point and counterpoint of her adult life.
It’s the relationships between these three—to call it a love triangle would give it misleading glamour—that anchor the novel. As a law student, Walter, weak-chinned, earnest, endlessly patient, courted—and eventually married—Patty, overcoming her instant attraction to his best friend, the infinitely cooler (and much less nice) Richard, a musician with rocker sex appeal and an eerie resemblance to Muammar el-Qaddafi. Over the span of the novel, their uneasy triumvirate shifts and reconfigures, reshaped by sex, of course, but also by competition and “deep-chemical” friendship.
Franzen being Franzen, these domestic relationships are only half the story—the Berglund’s once-golden-boy son gets involved in Iraqi defense contracting, Walter’s environmental causes become morally ambiguous. The political (and pop cultural) world doesn’t intrude on the lives of the characters so much as it creates them. “He was aware,” Franzen writes of the increasingly messianic Walter, “of the intimate connection between anger and depression, aware that it was mentally unhealthy to be so exclusively obsessed with apocalyptic scenarios, aware of how, in his case, the obsession was feeding on frustration with his wife and disappointment with his son.”
While Franzen’s mostly deft interplay between the personal and political occasionally falters—some passages feel less like crankish Walter’s diatribes than crankish Franzen’s polemics—it’s a small price to pay. His literary dazzle is stunning (and hilarious) as ever, but it’s old news. “The Corrections” proved him a near-singular documentarian of the cultural moment with Great American Novel ambitions. This time, though, Franzen has written with new emotional delicacy and depth, and we’re all the richer for it.