Sunday, January 8, 2012


‘People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily … You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.’

Since Freedom has been called the literary sensation of 2010, it is tempting to try to find some fault in it. Unfortunately, even the typographical errors that accidentally slipped into the early print runs of this novel do very little to detract from its cleverness. Those who purchased one of these copies (a large number of which have been pulped) may even be hopeful of selling it as a collector’s edition at some later point in time.

This novel is as unaffected, crisp and surprising as dry ice. It tells the suburban history of Walter and Patty Berglund and their children, Joey and Jessica (the ‘show horse’ and ‘work horse’ of the family respectively). Jessica is the least present in the novel, perhaps because she is the most restrained.

The Berglunds are free to pursue all kinds of desires and objectives, whether sexual, altruistic, educational, or financial. (It’s interesting to note as an aside that the Berglunds spend a fair bit of time living on Barrier Street. It is only when they move away that the novel really begins to explore the tensions between personal freedom and collective good.) This liberty is bound to lead to mistakes and conflict. Ultimately, it is a novel about our freedom to choose how to respond to crises, and our freedom to forgive.

The novel took Jonathan Franzen nine years to write, and the evidence of this careful application of skill and patience is in the distance he has created between the reader and the characters, without dulling the impact of this saga or introducing too much cynicism. If you have the opportunity, this is a splendid novel to read over the course of a single weekend, or perhaps a holiday break, because it rewards total immersion. There is much enjoyment to be had in waiting for the first appearance of the word freedom itself, and spotting it at regular intervals thereafter. To borrow one of Patty Berglund’s favoured expressions, this novel is ‘non-optional’.

Life isn't a novel. It's lots of novels, one after the other.