By Jonathan Franzen
''Always with you this freedom! For your walled-up country, always to shout 'Freedom! Freedom!' as if it were obvious to all people what it means, this word. But look: it is not so simple as that. Your freedom is the freedom-from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do [â�‚�¦] But what of the freedom-to? Not just freedom-from. Not all compulsion comes from without. You pretend not to see this. What of freedom-to. How for the person to freely choose?'' So says the quadruple-agent Marathe to the U.S.A. intelligence officer Steeply in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Wallace's long-time friend Jonathan Franzen's newest novel, Freedom, is concerned with just these issues. Longing to be free, Franzen seems to say in this book, from government regulation, from family, from friends, we become slaves to our drives. Not all compulsion comes from without, after all.
Freedom follows the lives of the Berglunds, a nuclear-sized Midwestern family—we first see them through their neighbors' eyes in St. Paul, Minnesota and then are gradually introduced to each individually, as the book spirals outwards, encompassing various universities, New York, South America and more. Patty Berglund is the book's most prominent voice; her memoir, written at the behest of her therapist, constitutes almost a third of the narrative. At the center of Patty's memoir is Walter Berglund, a relentless do-gooder with a misanthropic streak who woos her, draws her out of her isolation and marries her—and then there's Walter's handsome, narcissistic best friend Richard Katz, a musician whose ''charisma'' has a way of ''ratifying'' anything he touches. There's an almost Austenian element to the novel's design; one could say that Walter represents Sense—safety, comfort, rationality, and Richard represents Sensibility—pleasure, impulsivity, the aesthetic life. But any simplistic reading of the characters is complicated by the fact that, for most of the book, all of them seem deeply unhappy. Patty and Walter have two kids, who in some ways mirror the split between Walter and Richard; there's the icy, self-sufficient Jessica, and the incredibly self-absorbed Joey. Jessica remains a static character, deftly sketched but given little time in the book; Joey, however, commands a large portion of the latter half of Freedom. Flush with maternal love, at a young age Joey begins a relationship with the shy, strange girl next door, and discovers that the physical bliss he finds with her carries potential limits to his freedom. He discovers that ''things' prices weren't always evident at first glance.'' But he also discovers that he's a better person than he originally set out to be, that a limited freedom might spell redemption.
Recently in n+1, Benjamin Kunkel argued that the major trend in the contemporary novel is ''neotraditionalism,'' a return to ''tried-and-true ways of doing things'' as concerns affect, character and plotting. Since the publication of The Corrections, Franzen has become the ambassador of this trend. Freedom, with its seemingly limitless mental geography, shows that tried and true ways of doing things can, in the right hands, seem as modern, as culturally significant, as the most experimental fiction. Everything old is new again.