Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
FSG, $28, August 31, 2010
There were a lot of squeals around the office when a review copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom arrived in the mail. It’s been nearly nine years since the publication of The Corrections (which I read for the first time in January, and which remains my favorite book I’ve read all year), and we’ve already written a couple posts speculating about Franzen’s newest novel.
At this point about I’m about a quarter into Freedom, but I couldn’t wait to share an excerpt with you. That same crackling dialogue that I loved in The Corrections is back; the same absurd family situations that make you think, “These people are insane.” (And then, “These people remind me of my family.”)
The novel starts with an essay called “Good Neighbors,” the very same that The New Yorker ran in 2009. This introduces us to the seemingly perfect (but soon to become unhinged) world of Patty and Walter Berglund, a couple in Ramsey Hill, Minnesota. After their lives seem to collapse—their son’s moved into a Republican family’s house next door—the narrative turns to Patty’s teen and college years, through her marriage to Walter. (You can read the first chapter of that section in The New Yorker, too.) Then, it comes back to 2004—and that’s where I am now.
The excerpt is from the “Good Neighbors” section.
In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else’s children’s sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it. There were also more contemporary questions, like: What about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts O.K. politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did your 240 sometimes not go into overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button? Was it better to offer panhandlers food or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning? Had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer? What about a good Volvo mechanic? Did your 240 have that problem with the sticky parking-brake cable? And that enigmatically labelled dashboard switch that made such a satisfying Swedish click but seemed not to be connected to anything: what was that?