The Corrections, Part Two: I can do this again and again!

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

I greatly admired and enjoyed The Corrections.  In that book, Franzen fully brings a reader into his characters: their personal and social histories, their internal lives, and the day-to-day material conditions of their external lives.  It is a funny work and a maximalist work: structured, but full and overflowing and darting in unexpected directions.  But it is very much personal, about the individuals of the Lambert family.

While reading Freedom, I found myself reading another drama of the personal and interpersonal, finding the references to politics and social ideas subordinate to that: as context, as the things people talk about, as background for this drama of individuals.  As the book goes on, however, it becomes impossible to see it that way: the book is too much about politics (politicians, political events, political maneuvering, political ideas), so it comes to seem that Freedom is the sort of book Jonathan Franzen writes when he sets out to write about 21st century American democracy.  It is not a political statement (if it were it would be a poor one, for there isn’t much terribly original in it as political observation), so much as exploration of the political through the personal (and vice versa).  How people live, what people believe, what motivates people: these are questions that are personal and political.  Indeed, what the book shows is how much the personal and political are meshed and get meshed up in individuals, how it is from the personal that the political springs from.  Ideas about personal motives that are not new–children developing selves as reactions against their parents (yet also becoming like their parents, repeating them, often unwittingly), competition in personal relationships–in Freedom are the source of one’s politics.

But it is a novel about people, and a moving, engaging one at that.  And here lies Franzen’s greatest skill as a novelist.  There are certainly better writers of sentences.  But Franzen’s ability to draw fully developed characters, to emerge them into relationships with each other, and to develop their shared history with depth and nuance and detail, is masterful.  Patty, Walter, and Richard have a rich and well-drawn history together: the novel’s structure allows the reader to follow this history, and the narrative voice allows the reader to experience the different characters’ perspectives on it (in hindsight, the sections of the book focused on Patty and Walter’s son Joey, while necessary thematically, don’t quite fit well into the structure of the book).  By the end of the novel, little moments between these characters are full with context and theme.

There is something that touched me deeply and personally in this book as well.  I read for a wide variety of reasons, not least among these reasons my own edification, inspiration, and education how to to live a better life and be a better human being.  When Walter works for the Cerulean Mountain Trust, he feels morally compromised even in his sincere efforts to do good.  He feels hemmed in by the structural limitations.  And yet, ultimately, he doesn’t quietly acquiesce.  He doesn’t settle for doing little bits of good within a corrupted system.  He ultimately doesn’t even try to preserve his ideal within this compromised structure.  He breaks down, lashes out, and takes a stand.  He risks (and loses) his personal position in order to express his anger, to try and return to his ideal and shuck off the damaging compromises he’s had to make (again, the personal and the political mesh: he only does this after personal turmoil shakes his world).  Like Walter, I have strong ideals, and I share Walter’s anger and (moreso) his despair.  But I, too, have made compromises.  There is a great deal I’ve passively accepted, actions I’ve ducked for all sorts of reasons.  Can I have the courage to risk, or to knowingly sacrifice, for integrity, for righteousness?  Would I be willing to do what Walter did?  Will I be able to someday?  There’s something in my religion that demands I be able to do so, and makes me guilty when I am unable to do so.  Reading literature is, for me, a spiritual experience.  There’s something in Freedom that calls to me, telling me to live better.

How did I come to be reading this book?

I had read The Corrections, and I read Franzen’s short story “Good Neighbors” in The New Yorker (afterward learning it was the excerpted first chapter of Freedom, a book I knew I’d read eventually anyway).  But I wouldn’t have read the book now if my brother Jerod did anything other than read Franzen and rave about Franzen (he gave me the book for my birthday).

Reading Franzen, I’ve realized how much I’m drawn to literature about parent-child relationships (my own lit syllabus is drenched in the theme: Shakespeare’s King Lear, Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Lahiri’s The Namesake, and it goes on).  I suppose it is the closest thing to a universal theme as is possible to explore in literature (other than death, another subject filling my syllabus).

And I’m kidding about the title of this post.

One Response to “The Corrections, Part Two: I can do this again and again!”

  1. Sadie Meissner Fischer Says:

    As I reflect on the book all I can do is try to think of ways to not be like Patty, whereas you obviously are reflecting on trying to be like Walter. It could be that I find it easier to dodge bad than actively attempt good; it could be that I am more bound by gender identity than I wish I were. Or, it could just be my ponytail.

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