Monday, 28 February 2011

Freedom....what's it all about?

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen was our Summer read, and first discussion for 2011. A long saga of a novel, by the author of Corrections, it follows the lives of Patty and Walter Berglund, their experience in American suburbia, their stumbling student days, reflections on their dysfunctional families, and the unwinding of their lives as their children head into adulthood.

Franzen certainly chooses a large canvas, and contains some satirical reflection on American life. Patty's reflection on her family where she always felt an outsider, is both humorous and moving: eg 'Patty's father, Ray Emerson, was a lawyer and amateur humorist whose repertory included fart jokes and mean parodies of his children's teachers, neighbours and friends' It also becomes tragic, where her parents don't want to dwell on her rape as it would disturb the status quo, 'Coach Nagel says I should go to the police ' 'Coach Nagel should stick to her dribbling,' her dad said. 'Softball', Patty said. 'It's softball season now'. Which Patty sees as a betrayal of herself, and a reflection of her parents lack of understanding of her life as a sports 'jock'.

Patty and Walter are both rather naive players in their lives, subject to the power and games of others. They are both drawn to the cynical, rock singing Richard, who has a power over them, but who in turn is drawn to their idealism and zeal. Perhaps Walter and Richard are two sides of the coin, and Patty is attracted to both, which forms a large part of the novel's plot.

I felt very engaged in the main characters, and could empathise with the pain and indecision of their courtship, the challenges of raising children, and the tensions of marriage over the long terms. Patty and Walter tried so hard to move away from their own dysfunctional family life, but succeeded in creating a son with completely opposite values to them, and in losing each other. He does however manage to create a very lovable screwed up couple who, we were pleased to see, ended the book happily.

We enjoyed the dialogue in the book, and considered Franzen at his best in some of the dialogue between characters. He gives the main characters fairly comprehensively realised psychologies, so that we really take a journey with them as they make mistakes, follow their hearts, and make new discoveries about themselves. He does also use the book as something of a soap box, talking about the effects of capitalism, war, environmental destruction, and at times the book seems mired in this preachiness, which is less successful than the realism and journey with many of his characters. Walter's interlude with Lalitha and the subsequent accident, did not work for some group members, seeing it as rather melodramatic.

Franzen describes his approach as 'tragic realism' and 'an antidote to the rhetoric of optimism that pervades our culture', which I thought an apt label. We discussed the title 'Freedom' and thought that the concept of 'Freedom and Liberty were much more significant in US culture. Franzen does question the value of freedom, and the rampant materialism, abuse of power, and impact on the environment that valuing freedom above else had. The characters too have their own quest to free themselves from their past, and to create new lives, to have the freedom to be individuals. Perhaps Walter was the character most prepared to work communally, but in the end he becomes a mouthpiece for capitalism and environmental rape. For some the title did not work. I came away thinking Franzen saw Forgiveness as a more necessary quality than Freedom, such that the characters in the book needed to forgive themselves and each other, to really be free to move on.

But I'll move off my soap box ... The group as a whole enjoyed the book, the characters and his humour, despite some meandering and overdoing the 'message' elements.