Franzen's unhappy song" 'Freedom' is just another word for a lot to lose
The Cerulean Warbler is a species endangered by the loss of its nesting grounds in West Virginia because of the coal mining practice of mountaintop removal. In the novel "Freedom," efforts to save the bird, endanger a marriage.
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Since the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, we've seen enough pictures of dying birds to last us a lifetime. Those images repeat the message that there will be "collateral damage" caused by this continual quest for energy -- in the oceans for oil, the empty stretches of Pennsylvania for natural gas and the landscape of West Virginia for coal.
The little blue songbird poking its beak into the cover of Jonathan Franzen's deeply moving and superbly crafted new novel, "Freedom," sums up in one poignant image the novelist's grim portrait of this natural destruction in the midst of material plenty.
The bird, a Cerulean Warbler, is one of thousands of species endangered by the loss of its nesting grounds, in this case, the hardwood forests of West Virginia disappearing under the relentless practice of mountaintop removal.
Mr. Franzen's novel appears only months after the oil leak and the deaths of 29 West Virginia coal miners like another warning bell in the night. "Freedom," though, is a book of many dimensions, chiefly about the author's favorite subject, families and their complicated relationships.
A speech from Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale" introduces the novel which loosely follows the play's story of a man who believes he was betrayed by his wife and best friend:
"I, an old turtle (dove)
Will wing me to some withered bough, and there
My mate, that's never to be found again,
Lament till I am lost."
This triangle is Walter and Patty Berglund, a seriously liberal St. Paul, Minn., couple, and Walter's best friend, Richard Katz, rock star with all the attendant sex and drugs lifestyle. Patty, whose college basketball skills attracted Walter, wound up with the serious fellow in her tentative pursuit of Richard, a chase she never quite abandoned after marriage. She finally caught him.
Most of the novel is set in the first decade of the 21st century, giving Mr. Franzen plenty of material to satirize -- the younger generation, pop music, celebrity, corporate hypocrisy, environmental correctness, the Bush administration, subprime mortgages and even the styles of West Virginia drivers.
It's such a full novel, rich in description, broad in its reach and full of wry observations, but "Freedom" always comes back to the family.
Walter and Patty were the children of flawed parents and their well-intended efforts to raise their kids, Joey and Jessica, failed to avoid unhappiness, estrangement and a string of mistakes.
Another Franzen theme is depression, what he calls a "successful adaptation to ceaseless pain and hardship. . . .There is after all a kind of happiness in unhappiness, if it's the right unhappiness."
That freedom to suffer is one of several Mr. Franzen explores, including the "American" freedom to make easy money illegally despite the fallout and the freedom gained in escaping your parents, although, as the novelist knows, that never quite happens.
Walter's well-meaning efforts to save the Cerulean Warbler is the catalyst for the misfortunes that plague the Berglunds, bringing Walter the personal tragedies of losing friendship and love.
Mr. Franzen's greatest tools are his sympathy and understanding. These build well-rounded characters, major and minor. "Freedom" excels on the strength of its believable people and its power to make us care about them.
No novel is perfect. There are a few sour notes in "Freedom's" 562 pages, a few artificial circumstances and contrivances along the way. But like his characters, these flaws are part of the process of Mr. Franzen's intense concerns for what make us human.
First Published August 22, 2010 12:00 am