Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I had two false starts with this book.  Each time I got 30-or-so pages into it and there just was no lift-off.  Then I took the book (and my son) on a road trip to a lakeside weekend in northern Maine.  We swam.  We fished.  We kayaked.  And I took another shot at the book.  Before long I was hooked.  As Sunday approached, I didn’t want to read the last 30 pages… because I didn’t want the story to end.

I concur with a lot of the critics who say that Freedom tells us a lot about how we live right now and how we got here. Furthermore, the “we” cuts close to home as the story winds its way through high schoolers in the Watergate era, 30-somethings during the Reagan years, 40-somethings under Clinton, 50-somethings… hey, wait a minute!this is about me and my friends!

As a history teacher, I came to perceive our country’s story as that of a people who have tried to accommodate two contradictory concepts: equality and liberty.  Although we like to speak of both concepts interchangeably in the same breath, they are actually the opposite of each other.  Any measure designed to advance the one seems to inevitably result in some downward adjustment to the other.  Hence, we advance through time as though on a teeter-totter.

That same teeter-totter applies to raising a family and Franzen adeptly shows us how Patty and Walter Berglund try to pull it off.  I couldn’t help but see some of myself  in each of the Berglunds as well as the other main characters.  Some of their challenges are timeless and others unique to these difficult times.  I suspect that’s true of all of us.

We read history books to find out what happened.  The good ones will also cover the Why and the So What.  Novels tell us what it was like way back when.  For example, decades from now, anyone who wants to truly understand the 80s will absolutely have to read Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities.  (They might do well to skip the film.)  While it may not be his ambition, Franzen may well pick up where Wolfe leaves off.  And if there is to be a film in the future, may it be of the quality of The Right Stuff.

Onward,  Malcolm Gauld