|Remnants of the Berlin Wall|
currently being overtaken by graffiti and greenery
(creative and natural freedom run amok)
Last November, during the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, the BBC interviewed many former East Berliners and I was (perhaps naively) surprised to hear that some of them regretted the scope of their new “freedoms.” Many of them talked about the loss of job security, others lamented the proliferation of crime. Freedom definitely had, and does have, its downside. If nothing else, it comes with its own costs and compromises. Freedom seemed such a black and white concept when I was 21; is it so very middle-aged of me to think of it as greyer territory now? On one hand, we tie ourselves into absurd knots to protect civil liberties; on the other, we surrender all kinds of privacy and autonomy in the hope that it will somehow keep us safe.
Ah, the innocence of being 21. It is an age perfectly poised between adult freedoms (lots of them) and adult responsibilities (not so many, particularly if you are a senior in college). There is really only big question when you are 21 and that is what kind of person am I going to be? (All other questions, like what am I going to do to make a living?, can be collapsed into that one.)
Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel – Freedom -- never explicitly deals with the question of freedom, and yet the idea of it permeates every aspect of the novel. Instead of the Berlin Wall, this novel has the Twin Towers falling down – one destruction so positive, the other so negative. It is a novel that feels more personal than political, but the political circumstances of the past decade are always there in the background – and to this reader, at least, it felt like there was a comprehensive intelligence and understanding at work. I was in awe of the detail and the scope, (no wonder Franzen keeps getting compared to the great 19th century novelists), but the narrative never gets diverted from the relationships which are its core.
There are four main characters: an environmental lawyer/activist, a stay-at-home mother, a musician and a college student. Each of them has to deal with the question what kind of person am I going to be? over and over again. (That old expression “in between a rock and a hard place” comes to mind.) Two of the characters are primarily concerned with being “good,” and two of them are primarily concerned with being autonomous, but in the in-between there is a world of emotional and moral possibility. Surely there is no freer person than a white, well-educated, wealthy, Western man, but in the person of Walter Berglund (arguably the heart of the novel) there could be no one more weighed down by expectations, obligations and compromises.
Before I read this novel, I knew little more about Jonathan Franzen than that he wrote a novel called The Corrections (which sounded rather ominous), and that he declined the “opportunity” to be an Oprah novel. His media reputation is of someone who takes himself rather seriously, and I suppose I expected a novel that was weighty – but in a portentous way. Despite the hype – Time magazine cover, cultural zeitgeist, President Obama’s choice of vacation book – it really was that most satisfying of experiences: just a darn good read.
A Franzenian footnote: On Monday I was in London, and the Tube was mostly shut down due to striking. During my train journey home, I read that Jonathan Franzen had accidentally wandered into the Tube shut-down when his chauffeured car hadn’t shown up. There was something about the congruence of me and Jonathan Franzen – both affected by the strike; both out walking the London streets – that just amused me. Without a doubt, the freedom of workers to strike adversely affects the freedom of commuters to get around the crowded city. And yet, compared to the sardine tin of the Tube, it really did feel liberating to stride down Oxford Street!
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