Jonathan Franzen's 'Freedom' rings true

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FREEDOM, by Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 562 pp., $28.It's been nine years since Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" mesmerized Oprah, and her star-making prowess transformed a fat literary novel into a huge bestseller. Franzen, a self-consciously highbrow artist disdainful of Oprah's middlebrow taste, wasn't exactly pleased. After all, each of his three novels - including "The Twenty-Seventh City" and "Strong Motion" - denounced America's love affair with materialism and, implicitly, the very idea of bestsellerdom. Like it or not, the TV talk queen catapulted him into that la-la land where writers become millionaire celebrities.

Now, Time magazine has anointed Franzen its cover boy, the first time a novelist has landed there since Stephen King a decade ago. Does his latest 500-page-plus novel, "Freedom," merit all the fuss?

It's certainly easy to relish this author's sprawling novels, where dysfunctional families collide within larger webs of outlandish political conspiracies. Franzenite corruption comes in domestic and national varieties. Although these plot-driven books lack the ooze of slow-moving character studies, they delve deeply into character, and relationships are invariably complicated and messy. Franzen's superb dialogue grounds his characters in a class and place while giving them vivid personal identities. And he makes the clash of ideas as stirring as battles between egos. The result is that rarity, a page-turner that engages the mind.

The Berglunds of "Freedom" are as contentious as the Lamberts of "The Corrections." Walter and Patty, of St. Paul, seem mismatched from the get-go, and their kids, Jessica and Joey, seem to inhabit totally different worlds. Walter's an easygoing Nature Conservancy lawyer, whose most important role, aside from worrying about global overpopulation, is to keep Patty happy. That's an impossible task, since she can't get over having grown up the odd child out, a jock in a Westchester County family of politicos and artistes. Then, there's the date rape that her father refused to take seriously.

All of which leaves Patty permanently depressed and desperately lavishing attention she never got on her own offspring. Jessica turns into the dutiful, socially conscious child like her father, while Joey is the stubborn, self-absorbed know-it-all. Pity poor, kindhearted Walter in the middle of the maelstrom.

But there's more. Back when Patty was a college basketball All-American, Walter's roommate, punk rocker Richard Katz, won both of their hearts. The question of who loves whom more than the other will haunt this trio ever after.

A truly good man, Walter is like the soldier willing to risk his life to save his comrades. Squared off against him is the man he loves, the amoral Richard, who might snatch his wife away at any time, and the woman he loves, Patty, who questions whether she is worthy of his love or even wants it. Oh, the pangs and resentments of obsessive, misplaced love!

Most of Franzen's characters pursue a vision of freedom that ignores the rights of others, let alone recognizes any greater common good. One lout considers himself "a free man" because he doesn't support his children. Patty's siblings feel entitled to a life that doesn't require them to hold a job. Joey is drawn to doctrines of exploitative, free-market economics.

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Franzen spins plot and subplot out of these themes. Inexplicably, Walter gets entangled in a far-fetched scheme to carve out a vast bird sanctuary in West Virginia. Since the plan also grants its oil-and-gas company sponsors the right of mountaintop coal removal, the bad press about "destroying mountains in order to save them" is inevitable.

Walter's involvement in this fiasco simply isn't credible. Nor is the author's decision to give so much of the narrative to Patty's therapeutic diary "Mistakes Were Made." When a character complains, "What's so special about her, I will never understand," the reader nods in sympathy. Someone this passive-aggressive hardly seems an All-American anything.

Franzen's equation of domestic life with a battle zone - with unpredictable swings from love to hate and back - makes for bruising, but exhilarating reading. Thankfully, the battle isn't always about egos, but about contending world views. Richard carries the author's anti-consumerist, anti-careerist message, Walter his pro-environmentalist credo.

As in "The Corrections," Franzen elevates domestic conflict into matters of utmost concern. The extended Berglund family mirrors the feuding, warring, madly consuming and reproducing human family of the past four decades, fiddling while Rome burns. Long-winded and swaggering, angry and hectoring, but undeniably absorbing, even mesmerizing, "Freedom" is a book you want to get lost in, argue with and, finally, just plain enjoy.

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