Freedom

Issue section: 
(352)

Jonathan Franzen, Fourth Estate, £20

It's always with some trepidation that you pick up a book by an author whose previous book you absolutely loved. So it was when I started Freedom, the novel that took Jonathan Franzen nine years to complete following his 2001 masterpiece, the Corrections. But within the first few pages it was clear that his genius for exposing the excruciating realities of family life in the US was not a one-book wonder, and after a few chapters it was clear that this book was also going to express his rage at post-9/11 America.

Centred on the lives of Patty and Walter Berglund and their two children, as well as the couple's rock musician friend Richard Katz, the book describes with unsettling perception the destructive dynamics of relationships between married couples, between parents and children, between sisters and brothers, between adolescent lovers, between the powerful and the weak.

Patty, the central and most compelling character, is the daughter who disappointed her high-achieving parents, the wife who disappointed her noble husband, the mother who disappointed her ambitious children, the lover who disappointed her misanthropic idol, and the woman who disappointed her own abilities, aspirations and passions.

Some passages are so insightful that they are almost too painful to read - the response of ambitious parents to the rape of their daughter by a well-connected young man; the words spoken that are entirely different to the meaning meant by the parent and understood by the child; the sexual intoxication of betrayal; the aching acknowledgement that a former passion has died; the cruelty that people are capable of towards those who love them.

There are also searing accounts of the greed, destructiveness and corruption of corporate America - the lies and brutality and exploitation of the Iraq war; the ruthless manipulation of decent eco-warriors to make billionaires even richer; the relentless obliteration of nature and Walter's beloved songbird, the cerulean warbler - the literary mockingbird of the 21st century.

Freedom does not, in the end, quite live up to its predecessor, but it still is, in most places at least, a masterful piece of writing. Politically, Franzen may be trying to provoke his readers to question how they are using their freedoms, and to warn against the Tea Party's ugly notion of freedom that rejects any idea of collectivism and the common good.

But for me, Freedom is about the freedom to wage war, the freedom to obliterate species, the freedom to demolish communities, the freedom to destroy the planet, the freedom to dowse dreams, the freedom to bear arms, the freedom to consume and compete - all so the privileged classes have the freedom to live their fucked-up lives.