Despite the size and sweep across time of his new novel, Freedom, Jonathan Franzen is in essence a miniaturist. • Although, of course, the larger world shapes their story, Freedom is always sharply focused on the relationships among three people: Walter Berglund, his wife, Patty, and his best friend, Richard Katz. It's a triangle that has been vibrating with love and lust, loyalty and betrayal since the three met in college in Minnesota.
In his first novel since the acclaimed The Corrections in 2001, Franzen follows his characters over three decades, boring down into the layers of their lives like some moral archaeologist, bringing to light every well-intentioned act gone terribly wrong, every brutal loss with a glimmer of redemption at its core, every flight from the past that circles back around to the same place in the present.
The central event of Freedom is the implosion of Patty and Walter's marriage. Their origin story is an archetypal one: He loved her at first sight, and she loved his best friend. Katz (his predator surname is apt) is a tall, dashing, irresistible punk-rock musician, a classic bad-boy heartbreaker. Patty's weird roommate, who introduces them, ecstatically describes having sex with him as "like being erased with a giant eraser."
Patty preserves her own outlines, though, despite one thwarted attempt to run off with Richard. Instead, she lets Walter, whose "most salient quality, besides his love of Patty, was his niceness," persuade her to marry him.
A lawyer and passionate environmentalist, Walter sets his idealism aside and takes a corporate job so Patty can have a big Victorian house in a St. Paul suburb and stay home to raise their two kids — a compromise on his part that, for a couple of decades, works pretty well.
Richard goes off to the East Coast, where he finds minor fame, becoming the kind of cult-favorite musician who's grumpily embarrassed to get a Grammy nomination but stays busy erasing the girls. He drops in and out of the Berglunds' lives, truly devoted to Walter even though he has few other genuine friendships, but unable to outgrow his itch for Patty — an itch they will, of course, eventually and disastrously scratch.
The book's second most important triangle is that among Patty, Walter and their son, Joey. (True to his motif of triangulation, Franzen pays little attention to the Berglunds' daughter, Jessica, who remains a minor character.) Joey is a born golden boy, attractive, smart and ambitious. He and his father are always at odds; their relationship mirrors that of Walter and Richard, with Joey just as self-involved and morally heedless as his father's friend. But Patty adores her son, demanding such an intensely close relationship that he defiantly moves next door to his girlfriend's house at age 16.
That move is the first real body blow to the marriage. Not only does Patty despise the girlfriend, Connie; she detests Connie's flirtatious mom and her redneck boyfriend and is horrified when Joey enthusiastically adopts their right-wing politics.
Joey may be rejecting his smothering mother, but he flees to the arms of a girl who worships him even more abjectly. Several of the book's chapters are told from Joey's point of view, and his relationship with Connie becomes ever more masochistically codependent and creepy.
Even so, he forms his own triangle, pursuing his wealthy college roommate's beautiful sister: "Jenna excited him the way large sums of money did, the way the delicious abdication of social responsibility and embrace of excessive resource consumption did. He knew perfectly well that Jenna was bad news." Joey entered college just as the 9/11 attacks occurred, and his obsession with Jenna leads him into a perilous scheme to make his fortune by defrauding the Department of Defense during the early part of the Iraq war.
Meanwhile, Walter and Patty fly from their empty nest in St. Paul to Washington, D.C., where he has found the work he always dreamed of doing as director of the Cerulean Warbler Trust. But creating a sanctuary for the threatened bird requires enormous compromises. The trust's major donor, a birder and Bush-Cheney pal, is willing to pony up for vast forested acreage in West Virginia, as long as Walter doesn't mind him doing a little mountaintop-removal coal mining in the middle of it (and relocating dozens of poor families who live there).
The cerulean warbler is not the bluebird of happiness for the Berglunds. As their marriage grows more strained, they seem to split bipolar disorder: He gets manic, she gets depressed. Yet another triangle forms as Walter and his much younger assistant, the lovely and confident Lalitha, fall in love. When Richard, ever the bomb-thrower, walks into the situation and sees how miserable everyone is, he delivers the coup de grace.
Although Franzen nudges us at several points to think of War and Peace while we're reading Freedom, I was put much more in mind of John Updike's fiction, particularly the Rabbit books. Updike's characters were often of the author's generation, too young to have fought in World War II, too old to fit into the '60s counterculture, forever waffling — although waffling with brio — between tradition and change, lust and guilt, responsibility and freedom.
Franzen's central trio are members of the tail end of the baby boom, too young to have fought in Vietnam or marched against it. Walter's idealism is attenuated, Richard's calcified into an endless attempt to prolong youth, Patty's twisted into reactionary form with her adamant rejection of her career-politician mother's feminist path to be a stay-at-home mom, no matter how unhappy it makes her.
They're part of a generation that still struggles with growing up (not to mention growing old). Both Patty and Walter reject their parents and siblings, doing all they can to make their adult lives different from their upbringings. Yet they place enormous value on their own family — only to be shattered when their son rejects them in turn. In some of the most moving and insightful portions of Freedom, Franzen takes Patty and Walter back to their roots after their marriage has failed, revealing to them and to us how inescapable those ties finally are — and how redemptive.
Although Franzen's intricately layered storytelling is always compelling, there are implausible twists in the plot, most notably Joey's misadventures in war profiteering. Plenty of scam artists gamed the war in Iraq, but would even the most careless of them partner with a college boy with no experience, language skills or connections and send the kid from Poland to Paraguay to hunt down useless parts for obsolete trucks to sell to the military? Even if that subplot does lead nicely to Walter's disquieting discovery that he and Joey are in bed with the same rapacious corporation, it's tough to buy, especially in a novel that otherwise is so grounded in believable details.
But most of Freedom rings entirely true. Franzen's characters are not easy people to like, but he paints them with such patient skill, such exquisite brushstrokes, such an eye for pattern and composition, that we can feel their heartbreaks and wonders as if they were our own.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.