Franzen’s Shakespearean Turn: Freedom Is a Retelling of The Winter’s Tale for Our Time

“I don’t think they’ve figured out yet how to live,” a neighbor says of the Berglunds, the family at the center of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel. If the publication of Freedom feels like an Event–the author, bespectacled and melancholy, gazing out at the nation from the cover of Time–it is because novelists left behind the question of “how to live” when the Modernists turned away from morality to the mystery of consciousness. In his realist style, Mr. Franzen presents readers with a comprehensive instruction manual for day-to-day living. Like Dickens, Tolstoy and Dreiser before him, Mr. Franzen seeks to represent contemporary life and at the same time interpret it. That his novel, which is a triumph, has received such a triumphant reception is a sign that we are now less interested in books that show us what it is like to be alive than books that point toward what we should do with our lives.

Mr. Franzen opens Freedom with an epigram from The Winter’s Tale. It is a play anomalous even among Shakespeare’s “late comedies” in that it portrays the ruin of a marriage–when a man suspects his wife of bearing his best friend’s child–followed by halted attempts at restoring the old order, only to discover the solution in a new generation. This is eventually accomplished by divine intervention–an oracle brings to life a statue of the man’s departed wife, and they are reunited in love, leaving their children to start their lives anew, mindful of their parents’ mistakes.

Mr. Franzen’s novel holds a mirror to Shakespeare’s tragicomedy: By the third act, Freedom‘s feckless patriarch, Walter Berglund, failing to see his own fault in the matter, loses his wife, son and best friend, not to mention the daughter that has always been absent from his life. He feels betrayed by them all. All the characters, meanwhile, are trapped in their own failings, working up to the moment when they can be released from the concrete shell of disappointment and discover how to live.

Freedom begins with a kind of simulacrum of itself–the novel’s events distilled to 30 pages of objective prose set in gentrified St. Paul. The first paragraph tells us, in part, what the novel will be working up to: “a long and unflattering story in the Times” about Walter. Indeed, this first section reads like a New York Times profile of a troubled family’s history, the information delivered as if through quotations from neighbors peering through the windows for years.

Walter, a friendly, levelheaded liberal, takes a job at a conservancy in Washington. The neighbors are confused as to why The Times calls him “the fiend of Washington.” Meanwhile, his beautiful wife, Patty–a fallen Midwestern college basketball star–is having a nervous breakdown. Instead of greeting the neighborhood with celebratory cupcakes, she drinks a bottle of white wine in the middle of the day and slashes the tires of her Republican neighbor’s SUV. Their teenage son, Joey, has moved into the house next door with his girlfriend and her high-maintenance mother who–surprise, surprise–lives with the neighbor who had his tires slashed.

Mr. Franzen, bespectacled and melancholy, gazing out at the nation from the cover of Time, returns to the eternal question of ‘how to live.’

Through the lens of this typical middle-class family–typical because of all the skeletons piled up in the closet–Mr. Franzen explores the last decade in America. But, a testament to Mr. Franzen’s ruthless talent, he also uses the last decade in America to make sense of his fictional family. “How to live?” and “What happened to the Berglunds?” are questions of equal weight in the reality of the novel.

The book travels from St. Paul to the University of Virginia, to a secluded family cabin on “Nameless Lake,” to the warehouse of a South American arms dealer, across the entire country, back to the past and into the present, throughout the history of the family and the 21st century.

Franzen’s  Shakespearean Turn: Freedom Is a Retelling of The Winter’s Tale for Our Time