The Bluebird of Happiness

Freedom: A Novel (Oprah's Book Club)
A review of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

When Jonathan Franzen entitled his latest novel, I'm sure he had his tongue planted firmly in his  cheek. Freedom, what a word, so many connotations. But what is the author's intention? Does he want the reader to conjure the spirit of America, the very concept this land was founded on, a tenet of our American revolution? Does he want to remind his readers of the guiding principle of our lives, a principle so powerful, it is the very reason the 'terrorists' hate us. Or does he wish to connote the idea that "freedom's just another word", in the immortal words of Kris Kristofferson, "for nothing left to lose"? Well, it turns out it's probably all those things and more, but what he really wants us all to realize is that Freedom is complicated; its a shining star and a slippery slope; it's a serpent eating its own tail and a tale of rebirth; It's a philosophy to live for and to die for; and it can take a lifetime of commitment, sacrifice, and struggle to attain or to fail to attain...but it is worth it, right?

As Franzen's story begins, Walter Berglund, an environmentalist - "greener than Greenpeace" - finds himself between a rock - or more accurately, a mountaintop - and a large Haliburton-like corporation, called LBI. In order to save an endangered species - a little blue bird called the cerulean warbler - his employer, Vin Haven, the CEO of a non-profit organization called The Cerulean Mountain Trust, has embroiled Walter in a West Virginia land deal that would allow LBI to employ a coal mining method called "mountaintop removal" which will blight the land, yet may be the only hope  to save Walter's birds from certain mass extinction. But, just because Walter understands that to enjoy long term benefits, we may need to suffer short term sacrifice doesn't mean that virtually anyone else in the private or political sector does (especially the farmers who are boondoggled into selling their land); at least in regard to business and the environment. War, however, is another story. But we won't go there just yet.

Patty Berglund, Walter's wife, is described as "a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee". She's a Minnesota housewife, originally from Westchester county, New York, and a former college basketball star. Franzen uses Patty's psychoanalysis, in a way, as a means of backstory. Her analyst asks Patty to write a journal as a kind of therapy, the text of which becomes a long section of the novel. It turns out, before meeting Walter, she's practically stalked by her college dorm mate, Eliza, who, besides sycophantically following Patty's basketball career, emotionally imprisons Patty in her own twisted and needful world. Soon, by way of Eliza, Patty meets Richard Katz, a darkly prepossessing, if enigmatic, musician, and his roomie best friend, Walter, a tall, brilliant, unassuming though diffident science major. The plot is afoot. Through her journal, Patty tells us her deepest desires, regrets, and epiphanies, possibly to a fault - Patty's, not the novel's - and learns, among other things, that it may be possible to have too much freedom. As she's being 'stood up' at a would be tryst in Philadelphia, she muses,
"Where did the self pity come from? The inordinate volume of it? By most any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer (Patty) is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free."
Walter and Patty marry, have two kids, and settle in St Paul, Minnesota. They've become "the super guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege." In an attempt to either prove or disprove that perception, we are treated to a few separate plot lines. One involves, Richard, Patty and Walter in a cat's cradle of  complicated emotions; another follows Walter and his assistant Lalitha as they, in a desperate attempt to save the cerulean warbler project,  proposition Richard for public relations aid; still another shadows the Berglunds' son, Joey, as he leaves his pining teenage girlfriend, Connie, in Minnesota, for college in Virginia. Joey spends much of his holiday time in New York, apartment sitting for his newly found aunt Abigail, an actress who is estranged from his mother. He invites Connie to the big city and things get a little too serious. In the midst of all this, he's able to procure a job - or really more of an opportunity than a job - thanks to his dad, with the LBI offshoot military defense contractor; RISEN (Restore Iraqi Secular Enterprise Now). Joey must, as a subcontractor, raise 300K to invest in armored vehicle replacement parts from Argentina, and ship them to Iraq for a payoff of 900K from the US military. When things go south, Joey soon realizes he's bit off a little more of his conscience than he's willing chew on. You might say he finds the cost of Iraqi freedom.

As Franzen's tale moves forward, things just seem to get worse. He brings his characters to the brink, has them questioning their convictions, reconciling their guilt and their resentment. Of course none of it comes without paying a heavy price all around; As is said of Walter's immigrant grandfather, Einar, when, in an "extremely poor driving decision" caused by road rage, he kills himself and his wife: "The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is the personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage." Again, freedom isn't cheap, but what we do come to realize by the book's end is: if we don't allow the bitterness and depression in, if we can accept what we have and find happiness, it's most definitely worth the price.

Though, at first blush, it may seem like the familial story of the Berglunds hasn't anything to do with Mr. Franzen's grandiose title, what we soon come to realize throughout the course of this 600 page tome is that The Berglund's story is every American's story; it's about how we use our basic rights we've been born to. It's about our responsibility to our children, our neighbors, our country, and not least of all, our responsibility to uphold our freedom. I can say the author, through no small amount of literary skill, crafts his characters seamlessly, making it seem as though we've known these people our whole lives, but the truth is, we have.

~ Book Jones~ 4.5 stars