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David Finkle

David Finkle

Posted: August 23, 2010 02:01 PM

You can't judge a book by its cover, but sometimes you can get a strong hint about where it's going. Take Freedom, the Jonathan Franzen nine-years-on follow-up to The Corrections. Time magazine editors regard the new one so highly they've made the author a cover story with the banner headline "Great American Novelist"(!).

For the moment, however, the cover at which to take a truly close gander is the Freedom cover -- the dustjacket designed for the Farrar Straus Giroux release by Charlotte Strick. It features a Dave Maslowski painting of a cerulean warbler's head and partial breast.

The bird figures importantly in Franzen's narrative as a species about which one of the protagonists, committed naturist and environmentalist Walter Berglund, is deeply concerned. But as Franzen lays out his book, that bird and its feathered friends seem to take on a broader meaning.

Franzen, you see, is -- as Time's review/essay by Lev Grossman makes etching-clear -- a bird-watcher, and, curiouser and curiouser, the more a reader penetrates Freedom, the more it appears that Franzen's bird-watching is also a metaphor for the way he writes.

Yes, he observes his characters through novelist's binoculars. As he does, he amasses a bird-watcher's refined eye for coloration and feathering, etc., but achieves that success from a distance and with scientific concern -- that's to say, without a high degree of emotion. This aloof position will, perhaps, be off-putting to many who nonetheless wisely pick up the thick volume ($28).

Endlessly interested in the American family -- though he's divorced and has no children (yes, another way he watches the family from the, uh, wings) -- Franzen envisions the Berglunds of St. Paul, Minnesota. It would undoubtedly be pushing it to point out that the surname Berglund has a certain auditory resonance with "birdland," but there it is for readers -- and possibly Franzen examining his own unconscious prodding -- to make of it what they will.

In an opening chapter called "Good Neighbors", Franzen introduces dad Walter, mom Patty, son Joey and daughter Jessica via a deliberately superficial overview. He sets out how the four of them appear to their Ramsey Hill-Barrier Street (is "Barrier" meant to suggest defensiveness or remaining remote?) neighbors over the course of a few decades preceding their eventual departure from the area. You could say this section is akin to a bird-watcher's paging through a Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America in preparation for venturing into the wild.

Having established Patty as a pushy neighbor, Walter as a pleasant but unprepossessing guy whom Patty married for less that undying love, Joey as rebellious and involved with the apparently racy girl-next-door and Jessica as, well, as less intriguing than her parents and sibling, Franzen spends the rest of his 562-page text working assiduously and pain-stakingly beneath the Berglund surface.

The first venture is an autobiography dubbed "Mistakes Were Made" that Patty -- emerging as the book's major figure -- writes at her therapist's prodding. In it she talks about a truncated career as a basketball player and, even more significantly, about her swept-under-the-rug rape at the hands of a family friend's son and about her long-term pining not for Walter but for Walter's best friend, small-time rock-'n'-roller and New Jersey's own Richard Katz.

In ensuing chapters, Franzen focuses on Walter and Joey almost as steadfastly. He follows Walter's kicking Patty out of their home after an affair with Katz is confessed and his subsequent dalliance with a woman called Lalitha, his assistant in a bird conservancy program he sets up and hopes to break nationally. Franzen stalks Joey through his marriage to girl-next-door Connie and his often simultaneous infatuation with rich and spoiled Jenna, the drop-dead-stunning sister of a college buddy.

Keeping the Berglunds in his sights as lengthily and as carefully as he does, Franzen lays forth an extremely convincing portrait of an American family in these fragmented socio-political times. (You could say he plants a "family tree," but that would get back to bird-watching connotations.) The result, though, isn't especially endearing, but endearing is hardly Franzen's point.

The mere fact that he isolates much of the Berglund-watching into disparate chapters underlines his implied contention that families are composed of individuals who habitually associate with one another but barely know who each other is. Readers may question whether this is universally true. No question Franzen believes it is.

As a study of one family unit, Freedom (throughout the book Franzen indicates the title is ironic) does have one gaping hole. Closely as he studies Patty, Walter and Joey, he skips Jessica. Perhaps in his composing he did provide her with at least one chapter and chose to omit it; maybe he simply couldn't imagine her life beyond what he includes of her entering publishing in Manhattan. Aside from that, the flaws are minor of a man praised as a style perfectionist -- why employ an awkward word like "smallened" not once but twice or insert into Walter's thoughts the word "fetor"? (Look it up; Franzen didn't need to.)

Read Freedom, but know you'll keep your distance -- or it'll be kept for you.