I’ve been somewhat gushing but unspecific in my praise for Freedom. I do like the book because of its satire of liberal mores, but there’s more to it.
Take the structure. The first section (Good Neighbors) gradually moves from a somewhat gossipy, externalised, almost mocking view of the Berglunds to something more personal and moving. The opening sentences
The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally — he and patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St Paul now — but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as to not read The New York Times. According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital.
are brief and conversational (quite a mess), but tell a presumably sad tale of a quickly forgotten couple. The reader is then invited to view the Berglunds’ St Paul life through the eyes of a gently judgemental narrator and two neighbors (Seth and Merrie Paulsen). The distance between the reader and the protagonists allows us some amusement (Schadenfreude even) at the couple’s expense.
This distance is promptly foreshortened in the second section (MISTAKES WERE MADE, Autobiography of Patty Berglund). The first few pages provide some great knockaround, laugh out loud sport for the reader at the expense of Patty’s awful family. And then one sentence changes the reader’s perception, and the Berglunds’ story suddenly takes on a darker, more personal and moving tone. It’s a great piece of writing, sustained throughout the autobiography section.
I wonder if Franzen was consciously aping Tolstoy. Freedom’s opening shares the same distance and gossipy tone of Anna Karenina’s first sentences:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it. Every person in the house felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that the stray people brought together by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys. The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend asking her to look out for a new situation for her; the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner time; the kitchen-maid, and the coachman had given warning.
Of course, Patty does later compare the protagonists in her life with characters from War and Peace, and I think the comparisons between Franzen and Tolstoy in the blurb are justified when looking at the structure (and scope) of Freedom. Franzen doesn’t quite measure up to Tolstoy when dealing with time, and he can’t match the master when it comes to describing small moments and things. But these relative shortcomings are for another post.