Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Election campaigns are roiling American airwaves at the moment and will for the next several days. I am still surprised when I overhear a talk show host explain, from a co-worker’s radio, that the reason people from the other side disagree with him is, literally: “They hate America.” He repeats the mantra several times for emphasis. One politician cheats during a debate, another has to assure potential voters that she is not a witch, and an unhealthy minority of Americans think the President of the United States is not really an American. All of this is why I generally prefer novelistic fiction to the fantasy world that is, and likely always has been, American politics.

I have recently learned of Poe’s Law. Essentially, the “law” states that when a fundamentalist (religious, political, trekkie, etc.) reaches a certain point of wackiness, it becomes impossible to distinguish between a fundamentalist and a parody of the fundamentalist. Franzen seems to have run into Poe’s Law with this book. It is difficult to tell at points in Freedom whether he is in earnest or whether he is trying to parody extreme “right wingers” and/or extreme “lefties”.

I was among those who thought The Corrections was and is overrated. Franzen can churn out some nice prose, he has an admirable vocabulary, but the book seemed too cartoonish and derivative. He managed, for instance, to “pay homage” to South Park by using Mr. Hankey in a way that sucked out all the wit and replaced it with nothing interesting. Poking fun at big-pharma is neither daring nor original. It is better managed in a one-panel New Yorker cartoon than suffused throughout a serious novel. The fish-down-the-pants scene reeked of Seinfeld‘s Kramer. Cartoonish and derivative.

Ostensibly, this is another family drama, this time about the Berglunds. As with The Corrections, all members of the family suffer from dysfunction of some sort. Walter is a bright attorney who worships at the feet of Richard Katz, minor rock legend. His wife, Patty, is extremely competitive, also has a crush on Katz, and settles for Walter. Walter and Patty have a daughter Jessica, who is largely ignored by her parents in favor of Joey, her brother. Jessica is generally ignored by Franzen too, which is no doubt intended.

Patty adores Joey, practically worships him. Unsurprisingly, he becomes a bit self-centered. He has run-ins with his liberal father which leads him to seek outside money sources. A money-making opportunity arises when he creates and then fills a niche market at his girlfriend’s (Connie’s) Catholic school. His products are cheap watches with “chewable-looking” bands into which, after buying a thermo-embedding press, he embeds the text of his customers’ choosing. The school soon forbids the girls to wear watchbands with embedded text. Joey is upset; Walter is unsympathetic.

“It’s not an outrage,” Walter told him. “You were benefiting from an artificial restraint of trade. I didn’t notice you complaining about the rules when they were working in your favor.”

“I made an investment. I took a risk.”

“You were exploiting a loophole, and they closed the loophole. Couldn’t you see that coming?”


“It’s still money I should have had.”

“Joey, making money is not a right. You’re selling junk those girls don’t really need and some of them probably can’t even afford. That’s why Connie’s school has a dress code – to be fair to everybody.”

“Right – everybody but me.”

Joey becomes a Republican.

This exchange highlights a problem I have with Franzen’s Freedom. Walter is an extremely intelligent policy wonk who has, by the time of the above conversation, graduated law school. He should know better than to throw out terms like “artificial restraint of trade” in situations having nothing at all to do with an artificial restraint of trade. If we believe Patty, and we have no reason not to believe her, Walter is far too smart for that sort of mistake.

The “artificial restraint” Walter references was the nuns’ policy of permitting one watch, one ring, and two earrings. No one, not even Joey, was preventing the Catholic school girls from buying those same watchbands from any other retailer. Joey simply recognized and satisfied a demand. The term “restraint of trade”, however, has a very specific legal meaning which Walter, being a lawyer and policy dweeb, would know: “Contracts or combinations which tend or are designed to eliminate or stifle competition, effect a monopoly, artificially maintain prices, or otherwise hamper or obstruct the course of trade and commerce as it would be carried on if left to the control of natural economic forces.” (Black’s Law Dictionary). Franzen goes a step further and has Patty recall Walter using the term “artificial restraint of trade”. This term is unknown to Supreme Court decisions or the SSRN eLibrary (covering law, economics, and other fields) but, apparently, is used very occasionally in economics and more informal discourse (2300 returns from Google, many referencing this book).

The problem here is similar to that I had throughout the book. I find it doubtful that the Walter Franzen has given us would use the term that way, even in the heat of an argument with his son. He would have had to use the term to mean that the nun’s policy regarding jewelry stifled competition in the market for jewelry. The definitions of markets matter a great deal in antitrust and a single private school would never constitute a market, something Walter would know. Setting that pedantically technical point aside, the restriction does not directly benefit Joey. It benefits all sellers of watches and watchbands at the expense of those who sell other types of jewelry and accessories. Joey simply recognized the niche market for watchbands and filled it. Joey was not protected from any other purveyors of watchbands, lettered or not. Walter’s frustrated accusation that Joey did not complain about “the rules” when they worked in his favor entirely misses the mark under any reasonable understanding of economics. And Walter definitely had a thorough understanding of economics.

There is an unreality to Franzen’s work that prevents me investing in the characters. This unreality is both what makes his books work and why I cannot find them sufficiently serious to be much more than entertainment.

Take this scene (SPOILER ALERT) for another example:

“…I told her I had cancer. She didn’t know anything.”


“Are you actually suicidal?” the mother said. “Or was that just a threat to keep your friend from leaving?”

“Mostly a threat,” Eliza said.


“OK, I’m not actually suicidal.”

“An yet you’re aware that we have to take it seriously now,” the mother said. “We have no choice.”

“You know, I think I’m going to go now,” Patty said. “I’ve got class in the morning, so.”

“What kind of cancer did you pretend to have?” the father said. “Where in the body was it situated?”

“I said it was leukemia.”

“In the blood, then. A fictitious cancer in your blood.”

This scene works because it is funny. The scene is funny because the father’s stern inquiry into the location of Eliza’s “fictititious cancer” amidst his daughter’s bizarre obsession, heavy drug use, and suicidal threats is ridiculous. Franzen is at his best when dissecting interpersonal relationships in this way, but the effect is too often that of a punchline rather than an insight.

The scene with Walter and Joey can work, too, with Walter being a bit ridiculous by wielding his greater knowledge of economics dishonestly. Arguments between fathers and sons, particularly those characterized by competition and rebellion, are likely to become ridiculous with both haphazardly throwing whatever projectile is handy. For Walter, it was an arcane term from economics.

Too many of the other pivotal scenes have a similar ridiculousness to them. They are just real enough that the characters seem in earnest, but sufficiently unreal that they seem to be part of a joke. The book is infused with politics, but Freedom is never clear in revealing whether Franzen is trying to parody or to portray “intellectual” lefties who bungle basic economic ideas. Nor can I tell whether he is aiming for reality or satire with his “greedy” righties. The politics is a politics of caricature which does not, in my initial reading, seem to lend much more than humor to the book. I grant that it is difficult to put current politics into a book without sounding a bit foolish yourself, but that is what Franzen chose to attempt. Poe’s Law has frustrated his attempt to make any political points.

There is more to Freedom, including parallels between this work and Age of Innocence and the characters’ obsession with freedom in their relationships. I do not think Franzen achieves for our age what Wharton achieved for hers. Her comedy is brilliant because it is so penetrating. Franzen’s comedy is not brilliant because it obscures more than it reveals. The difference is that between a joke and wit.

[A number of grammatical mistakes have been corrected since the initial post several hours ago. My apologies.]

25 Responses to Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

  1. For me, a very well-timed review — I’ve had a copy of Freedom on hand for some time but have consciously avoided starting it until the wave of publicity subsided. We are heading to Lake Louise for a few days winter vacation in the mountains and I thought I would make this my reading project — your thoughts will be in mind when I finally open it.

  2. Kerry says:

    I will be most interested to see what you think about it (and whether you think any of my criticisms are valid). I have stayed away from reviews of it, but will [“not” was supposed to be “now”] start with John Self and the Reading Ape and move on to others from there.

    Your winter vacation sounds delightful. I hope you have a great time. I am sure I don’t need to hope that you will bring with you plenty of books.

  3. The difference between Wharton and Franzen is the difference between a woman and a monkey, to paraphrase Nietzshce. A fantastic review!

  4. I came to similar conclusions about halfway through and therefor never finished it. His comments about freedom seemed to be on a completely false premise by indicating the characters made wrong choices because of too much freedom. In actuality it was because they never bothered to evaluate the choices themselves or the motivations driving them that led to the bad decisions. Everyone seemed to have the emotional intelligence and reactivity of a five year old with the only somewhat sophisticated reaction amongst them was repression.

    Good and thoughtful review. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you, Kimberly.

      I agree that Franzen’s characters tend to lack emotional maturity. And your dissection of his apparent take on freedom is pithily accurate.

  5. Teresa says:

    The more I hear about this book, the more I’m convinced I wouldn’t like it. You have The Corrections absolutely pegged, in my opinion, and it sounds like this is more of the same.

    • Kerry says:

      If you didn’t like The Corrections for the same reasons I did not, then I do not think you will like this one either.

      I am always happy when someone else shares my poor opinion of a highly-regarded book (The Corrections). Misery loves company and all.

      Thanks for the comment.

  6. I am going to save this review until I read it with my reading group in January. Expect a comment from me then!

  7. Biblibio says:

    Here’s what I wonder. I haven’t read either of Franzen’s well-loved/hated novels and I don’t really see myself picking them up any time in the near future. Still, you disliked The Corrections, and yet you came to Freedom regardless. Even with a previous dislike of a well-hyped book by the same author, you decided to read the book. So I must ask: why?

    Having asked that, I have to congratulate you on writing one of the first reviews of Freedom I’ve encountered (and gad, I’ve encountered too many…) that critiques (or praises, or whatever) the book with actual substantive reasons and even a few hints regarding what the book is about. A most interesting and informative review, thank you.

  8. Kerry says:

    Your question of “why” is a good one. First, while I think The Corrections is overrated, Franzen is capable of very nice prose (unfortunately, I found less of that to admire in this book though it was not all lacking). While many scenes are “cartoonish”, Franzen’s stabs at humor sometimes draw laughs. The scene I quoted above about a”fictitious cancer in [the] blood” was funny, if a little ridiculous. So, to sum up, there are some things to enjoy along the way.

    Second, The Corrections has been included by many knowledgeable critics as one of the best books of the last ten years. Though it does not crack my top ten, I could be (have been) wrong on whatever objective merits there are. Some early reviews of this book were equally laudatory. As important as Franzen is (whether deservedly or not), I thought he was worth a second chance, especially given my own ten years of change since last reading his work. I read a second Hemingway too despite not enjoying The Sun Also Rises. I loved A Farewell to Arms.

    So, I did not want to rely on a single bad experience in dismissing a highly regarded and, admittedly, talented author. This is more so where the author has cultural significance. But I think I have gotten from Franzen what I can get, at least for now. Maybe in ten years, I won’t mind trying him again. But the odds are against the third time being the charm.

    I hope that makes some sense.

    Thank you very, very much for your encouraging comments.

  9. verbivore says:

    This is a fantastic review. Makes me want to read Freedom to sort it out for myself. I started The Corrections and put it down, although I think this was a mistake. I plan to read The Corrections, and then Freedom, hopefully later this winter. A kind of Franzen study. I’d like to understand why his work is so lauded, and to see what there is to admire and enjoy or be skeptical of.

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you very much for the complimentary comment. I think your project is a good one. I think there is much to admire in Franzen’s writing, but it never resonates for me. I have probably already explained that as well as I can, but this is not a book that is painful to read. I just do not think it is the novel of the millenium or decade or even year. But, given Franzen’s weight in the literary world, it is certainly worth making that determination for yourself. I will look forward to seeing what you decide.

  10. I was just commenting on Kevin’s review of this. I enjoyed yours too, I thought you brought out the weaknesses of the novel nicely.

    Issues like the artificial restraint of trade can be quite important. If one’s writing about the world in this way, one has to get the details right else where’s the accuracy of the attack?

    I compared Franzen to the Victorian novelists over at Kevin’s. Many of them too I would characterise more as entertainment, lent a literary air by the passing of years (not all, some are obviously masterpieces). Clearly Franzen has ambition and clearly many enjoy what he writes and that ambition for many comes off, but equally he seems a writer that’s perhaps good rather than great but from whom (perhaps unfairly) we all expect greatness.

    • Kerry says:


      Thanks, as always, for the interesting comment.

      I absolutely agree that the details of economics are important when the book is, at least on some level, about economics and the American politics of economics.

      I think your point about expectations is a very good one. I probably do hold it against him that he is revered as great though he is merely good. But your comparison with the Victorian novelists has me thinking: history may well be on Franzen’s side. People (in the aggregate) do find Franzen entertaining and they read him in droves (I know, me too) and his prose is rarely awful and sometimes very nice, so he has a shot at enduring popularity (unlike, say, Grisham, I think). I still think he is overrated.

  11. There’s a blog and comments about The Corrections in the Guardian presently Kerry, the comments praising it I thought you might find interesting.

    My suspicion is that a lot of people will like Franzen, and that as the hype fades he’ll settle a bit in reputation but probably have some longevity. But, literary longevity’s an utter crapshoot. One can never really tell.

  12. nicole says:

    Getting to this quite late, obviously, but I love your takedown of Walter’s argument. That’s the sort of thing that had me very angry at the book, and I kept being unable to decide, like you, whether much of the book was parody or in earnest. I mostly ended up just thinking the problem was Franzen’s own economic and political limitations. kimberlyloomis’s point about his understanding of “freedom” itself was part of the same issue for me. The political and economic concepts were so tangled (and, in my opinion, far too influenced by the BS that is partisan American politics) as to be largely unintelligible.

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks, Nicole! I agree about the obvious influence of “the BS that is partisan American politics”. The book suffers, in my view, for being neither an interesting critique of the BS nor on a plane above it.

  13. Rob says:

    Thanks for referencing the “artificial restraint of trade” conversation. I was reading an excerpt of Freedom, quite by accident, on the web today and the use of this phrase drove me nuts. Kept reading and rereading it, “this is wrong! what am I missing?!”
    Had to look the phrase up to sort my head out, and, well…here I am!

    • Kerry says:

      You are very welcome. I do hope my thoughts were helpful. Thank you for dropping by and taking the time to comment. I am actually pleased to hear someone else found that statement jarring.

  14. Great review Kerry … you touch on a couple of things that bothered me. One is that it seems full of a lot of set pieces that don’t quite hang together to make a whole. And the other is the tone – as you say, it is hard to know what is satirical and what is real, and that makes it hard to know what exactly his point is.

    In the end, I plumped for earnest – and still couldn’t quite tease out the real point. Maybe, thinking about it, his point is really “malaise”!

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks Sue!

      In some ways, it almost feels like he was afraid to commit to a political point which seems a weakness in a book that is so self-consciously about politics. That is unless, as you say, his point was more about malaise and the emptiness of every political position. But that seems entirely wrong to me.

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