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Franzen's 'Freedom' rings true

Award-winning novelist and former St. Louisan Jonathan Franzen is a hot topic in the media world — again.

Franzen is on a national tour for his new novel, “Freedom,” and he will discuss and sign the book at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis on Monday, Sept. 20.

Almost exactly nine years ago, Franzen accidentally got himself dis-invited from “Oprah’s Book Club” and made national news in a way that writers seldom do. The occasion was the publication of his third novel, “The Corrections,” which won multiple prizes in 2001, including the National Book Award.

Franzen, then relatively unknown, went from being respectably promising to the notorious writer who either dissed or was dissed by Oprah Winfrey. The problem in 2001 was that Franzen claimed male readers were telling him that if Oprah liked it, then “The Corrections” was a woman’s book. Franzen repeated that concern in print and on the radio and The Oprah Winfrey Show almost immediately withdrew its invitation.

Now Franzen's new novel, "Freedom," is being praised and criticized because of the male author's use of a female narrator, the voice of Patty Berglund, one of the key characters in the story. A large portion of the novel is presented early in the story as “Autobiography by Patty Berglund” and takes up nearly 200 of the total 576 pages.

Meanwhile, the Aug. 23 Time magazine, which had Franzen's picture on the cover under the headline “Great American Novelist,” was on newsstands for two weeks before the release of “Freedom.” Franzen himself has said that the publisher has been scrambling to meet the resulting demand. In St. Louis, the original venue for the book-signing was a local public library branch. That's been changed to the much larger space in Christ Church Cathedral. 

“Freedom” is an ambitious and wide-ranging novel about life in the U.S. since the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. In effect, the story of one family becomes the touchstone for the story of the national temper since 9/11.

The story chronicles the dissolution of an ultra-politically correct family from St. Paul, Minn., who move to Washington, D.C., and fall apart because of their growing “freedoms.” An unrelenting satirical voice operates throughout.

Patty and Walter Berglund are a perfect liberal couple with two perfect children at the beginning of the story. Then their angry teenage son Joey moves out, virtually divorcing his parents, and moves in with the working-class Republicans next door. Then Patty admits that she has always been more attracted to her husband’s rock-star best friend than to her husband, Walter. Then Walter goes from being a bicycle-riding environmentalist lawyer to the mouthpiece for a coal company that specializes in “MTR” — mountain top removal, a process that is particularly unsightly and controversial.

Pretty soon, the explosive disruption of the Berglunds’ once-perfect life is unstoppable.

The unusual structure of the story in “Freedom” includes the kind of tale within a tale that readers may remember in John Irving’s “The World According to Garp” (1978), another breakthrough novel by a then little-known novelist. That story also presented fascinating new forms of family-making, quirky sex and a generally zany criticism of the times.

Also like Irving’s “Garp, ” Franzen’s “Freedom” pulls off fancy tricks without seeming to be weirdly postmodern. Nobody in “Freedom” has amnesia or lives life in reverse chronological order or has any of the improbable experiences that go with writing about future dystopias or distant magical realms.

On the other hand, the characters do get up to no-good in ways that most of us can readily imagine but rarely have the opportunity or the nerve to accomplish. The story will leave readers shaking their heads, grimacing in disgust, snickering with serves-you-right satisfaction and generally feeling great sorrow for the people portrayed.

Despite the weighty tone of trying to connect the national mood to the social terror of one family’s explosion, the effect of “Freedom” is lightened considerably by endless wry satire. Franzen takes snarky aim at liberals, corporate hustlers, Midwesterners, Washington power brokers, the music scene, East coast college-boy scions, rich gossip-girl types and many more. The book even offers multiple endings, including a Carl Hiaasen-like romp that softens the reader for more serious issues to come.

The question of whether “Great American Novelist” is an appropriate tag for Jonathan Franzen and “Freedom” is probably best left unanswered for the next 30 years or so. But readers ought to be surprised if “Freedom” is not on short lists for major American writing awards this year.

Jonathan Franzen

Born: Aug. 7, 1959, Western Springs, Ill.

Grew up: Webster Groves

High school: Webster Groves High School

College: Swarthmore, 1981

Three novels: The Corrections, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion

Two nonfiction books: How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone

Now lives: New York city

Fun: Bird watching

Nick Otten is a freelance writer who has been a regular contributor to the Beacon on books and movies. (To see, Nick's List, click here .)

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

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