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Review: Celebration and critique of society exceeds the hype


Several weeks before the publication of Freedom in the US, Jonathan Franzen featured on the cover of Time Magazine under the headline "Great American Novelist".

Online, in between a series of pop-up ads -- ironic, given the author's contempt for the internet's distractions -- the reviewer suggested that Freedom felt big in "a way that not much other American fiction does right now".

Early in the summer, bookshops were already pinning hopes on the novel to boost Christmas sales.

So much anticipation, combined with a gap of nine years since Franzen's last novel, The Corrections, might cause Freedom to fall short of expectations. Instead, it fulfils and perhaps even surpasses them. Freedom is an exhilarating novel, which succeeds in critiquing contemporary society and in celebrating it.

Franzen delicately balances cynicism with emotional depth, the private and familial with the political and the public. The novel is about ordinary people who make terrible mistakes while trying their best to do the right thing, with every choice having a particular, weighty consequence; it's about the complexity and dysfunction at the heart of loving relationships. And it's about the concept of freedom itself -- Franzen undertakes a sustained investigation into the word's meaning, after a decade that has seen spectacular abuse of language, especially in America.

At the centre of the novel is Patty, who is a discontented housewife, but not a typical one, in the way that nobody really is typical. Her husband Walter adores her, yet she's hung up on another man she met in college who happens to be Walter's best friend. They have two children, the bright but rebellious Joey, and a clever, more conventional daughter called Jessica. That might not seem like a recipe for disaster, but somehow, at length (more than 562 pages), disasters of various sorts unfold, involving a series of patterns and repetitions, which the characters try strenuously to avoid.

Walter is deeply frustrated by his son, but their relationship is similar to the one Walter had with his father. Patty, neglected by her own parents, loves Joey to excess, but he ends up running away from her smothering attention. Jessica complains to her father that her boss sleazes on her around the same time that Walter is thinking of embarking on an affair with his attractive, female assistant, who is half his age.

One of the things that might qualify the novel for the epithets "great" and "American" is the way that Franzen touches on so many cultural milestones of recent years. He shows an admirable awareness of Octomom, Kate Winslet, blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Even U2 get a mention, though it's a rather dubious one. When Joey gets together with his girlfriend, they are in their early teens. Franzen tells us that Achtung Baby "had been the soundtrack of their mutual deflowering. The opening track, in which Bono avowed that he was ready for everything, ready for the push, had been their love song to each other and to capitalism."

George W Bush and Dick Cheney are a part of the novel's political fabric, but Jenna Bush acts as another kind of reference point, when the unbelievably hot sister of Joey's college friend tempts him away from his long-term girlfriend -- "the sister's name was Jenna, which in Joey's mind connected her to the Bush twins and all the partying and loose morals that the Bush name connoted". It's perhaps no surprise that the beautiful Jenna is "bad news". What excites Joey, who is a young Republican in defiance of his family's Democratic stance, is whether "he might become bad enough news himself to get her".

Through the characters' anxieties and obsessions, the novel savagely attacks the last US administration's War on Terror and other problems. Walter is fixated on the topic of population growth, and the narrator explains: "In Walter's view, there was no greater force for evil in the world, no more compelling cause for despair about humanity and the amazing planet it had been given than the Catholic Church, although, admittedly, the Siamese-twin fundamentalisms of Bush and bin Laden were running a close second these days."

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Joey gets involved in a scheme to supply old, poorly manufactured tanks to US soldiers in Iraq, and the cynicism is clear -- the War on Terror is a good thing because it will go on indefinitely and provide an endless supply of jobs, and Walter, who becomes embroiled in a dodgy get-rich-quick scheme, speaks at the opening of a factory that has the simple slogan: Jobs + National Security = Job Security.

At the same time, Franzen is too smart to let the Democrats away without a few sharp comments. One reason why Joey likes the Republicans is that he's sick of the "unexamined condescension" with which Democrats regard the working class. The Republicans "didn't disdain people the way liberal Democrats did".

For every character, freedom has a different sense. It may be the freedom to leave your wife and begin a new life with a much younger replacement; it may be a college kid's freedom in breaking rules. The effects of liberty, when characters acquire it, are surprisingly lonely and disappointing. For readers, though, tracing the word's recurrence is an intellectual game that Franzen, in an obvious and self-conscious way, sets up.

The book has its flaws. The conclusion neatly wraps up every single loose end in a redemptive finale that is too pat to be credible. Some parts are hard to get through: Walter is an impassioned environmentalist, and the sections in which he rants about the world's future to his assistant are slow going.

Franzen has few absolute allegiances, and Freedom offers a satire on almost every aspect of our fragmented globalised culture, managing to do so with a warm-hearted empathy. In short, this is indeed a great novel. It lives up to the hype, and is worth reading for its sheer enchanting cleverness.

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