Wednesday, October 6, 2010
For nine years, readers have eagerly awaited Jonathan Frazen's follow-up to the National Book Award-winning The Corrections. His is a tall order: to create a fourth-novel in the wake of a work that regularly appears, and deservedly so, on "best of the decade" lists. His latest, Freedom, will not disappoint even the most ardent Corrections-lovers with the highest expectations; it is simply that good. A tale of suburbia, and America at large, gone awry, it features the fully-rounded characters that have been the highlights of his first three novels and shows that Frazen has not lost a step during his time off.
Freedom is the story of Walter and Patty Berglund, once St. Paul, Minnesota's golden couple. Walter was a devoted family man who cared about the environment, riding his bike to work every day and working as an environmental lawyer. Patty was the ideal neighbor, wife, and mother; together, they were the gentrification generations best, the pinnacle of the Whole Foods crowd. Within the novel's first 30 pages that all falls apart. Walter has his hand in the demolition of a West Virginia mountain working for Big Coal. Patty has gone off her rocker, raging war against her ultra-conservative neighbors and coming unhinged all before the neighborhood's ever-watchful eyes. Teenage son Joey has moved in with the aforementioned neighbors, has a clingy, borderline crazy girlfriend, and has signed on as sub-contractor to help rebuild post-war Iraq. And now Richard Katz, burned out rock star turned deck builder and Walter's friend and rival, has re-entered the picture.
The bulk of the novel is spent detailing how the Berglunds have arrived at their current disarray after once serving as an example of hope and a standard for the ones around them to try to reach. It chronicles Patty through girlhood, a sexual assault, a failed college basketball career, and the love triangle between her, Walter, and Richard. The characters' actions may at times border on despicable, but Frazen always provides a reason for them in the midst of current issues such as the environment, war profiteering, and gentrification. At times it is difficult to separate the Berklunds from the issues themselves because they serve as foils for Frazen to investigate the morality and reasoning behind such shady, even considered sinister events that have received so much attention and criticism of late.
But these instances are where the novel is its most compelling. The world is changing rapidly, too rapidly at times for even the most progressive-thinking individuals, the ones who brought about change in their heyday and now find themselves grasping to hold on to what was. The world is confusing, and Freedom follows the characters as they try to sort out this confusion. They make compromises in middle-age out of what they think is necessity, they are occasionally horribly immature for their age, they are exceptionally vulnerable and human. Freedom is truly a moving depiction of our current time, one that presents brand new challenges that have the power to compromise those with the supposed utmost integrity. What may be most remarkable about the novel is that, even after exploring these often unlikable characters and their faults and triumphs and trials and disappointments, they are likable. The reader is deeply invested in them and their plight. And when all is said and done, there is even a glimmer of hope at Freedom's conclusion.
Joseph Gustav is a guest blogger for My Dog Ate My Blog and a writer on online schools for Guide to Online Schools.