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

At its center is the love triangle between Patty, Walter and Walter’s best friend (and the novel’s best character), Richard Katz, a struggling punk rocker with a striking resemblance to Muammar el-Qaddafi, who makes good late in life, only to betray Walter and find his success utterly empty. The focus moves from character to character, the events of the past decade chugging along unapologetically as everyone’s lives collapse, and the pieces delicately glued back together.

A sizable fraction of the novel is taken up by the “autobiography” of Patty Berglund (“Composed at Her Therapist’s Suggestion”), titled “Mistakes Were Made.” (Again, are we talking about one family or America?) Tongue firmly in cheek, Mr. Franzen retells the history of the family from Patty’s more knowledgeable perspective. Her voice is indistinguishable from Mr. Franzen’s own. “Funny how the trick works,” the “autobiographer” writes in a self-conscious moment, “the transfusion of confidence through simple words.” She is an allegory for the real-life cranky Mr. Franzen, the author’s stand-in, acting out his critique of the upper middle class. Whereas Mr. Franzen’s political viewpoints have, in the past, felt overwrought and intrusive, here they are Patty’s viewpoints rather than the novelist’s cagey attempts at making an appearance in his own book.

And so, even for all of its involvement in contemporary society, what Mr. Franzen has composed is a marriage drama in the sense of a Victorian novel: The romance goes on in spite of the catalog of social life being compiled around it; nothing can derail the marriage narrative–not affairs, not war, not history–until the happily-ever-after, or the death or remarriage of one of its members. The relationship of Patty and Walter is less a metaphor for contemporary society, as was arguably the case with the deterioration (both physical and symbolic) of Enid and Alfred in The Corrections (“Something terrible was about to happen,” he wrote at the beginning of that novel, talking about the crumbling bodies of his central couple, but really referring to the end of the so-called American Century), than contemporary society is a metaphor for Patty and Walter’s marriage. “It’s kind of a bottomless pit, once you get into it,” Patty says after a particularly torrid indiscretion with Richard, speaking in general about her marriage, her class status, even commenting, vaguely, on the stupendous depths of Mr. Franzen’s characterizations.

The book’s one glaring flaw is that it loses sight of the romance’s importance in the last third, refocusing instead on Patty’s foil and Walter’s much younger mistress (and co-worker at the conservancy), Lalitha, easily the most thoughtless character here, a vapid representation of “young people and their capacity to do good in the world.” Frustratingly, the book’s final image is of Lalitha’s face, leaving a sour aftertaste.

This is, however, a minor complaint, especially for a novel that is such a pleasure to read yet so intricately structured. Mr. Franzen points to the promise of a new generation discovering how to live as a result of their parents’ mistakes. Herein lies the meaning of the novel’s title. The past is freed from its burdens through the future’s forgiving eye (it is no mistake that the setting of Freedom is slightly deferred to not-quite-present day, around the middle of the past decade, allowing us to wallow in the failures of recent history, but also, one hopes, at the benefit of not making the same mistakes twice). And yet, in spite of hope and promise, of the old throwing down its shackles and giving way to the new, this younger generation is, in part, tragic for its remaining focus on the shards of the past. At what cost is order re
stored? Mistakes were made and they will be made again. As Enid in The Corrections discovers only in the last act of her life that she will make a change, how late is too late to learn how to live? This question goes unanswered, but that is also the point. It is only fitting that a book that begins with questions ends with questions that are even more difficult to answer. By some miracle, the center can hold, but does anyone really know how to live?

mmiller@observer.com

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