State of Undress: Franzen’s Freedom

Leon Neyfakh | September 13th, 2010

Everybody knows everything in Freedom. Not one secret feeling is successfully hidden, and not one lie is unequivocally believed. At one point Patty and Walter Berglund, the couple at the center of the story, have a fight in Walter’s study with the door open, and afterward, when someone in another part of the house indicates that she has overheard them, Patty tells her that she would have done well to pretend she hadn’t: “We all have to work really hard on pretending.”

Work hard they do, both at pretending and believing, but it’s never any use. Everyone sees through everything, if not right away then eventually.

Chalk it up to the author of Freedom, Jonathan Franzen, working hardest of all, athletically undressing each of his characters until all motives — acute and deep seated — are laid bare. There’s an idiom in Russian that translates literally to “bringing people out onto clear water”; it refers to exposing people when you know they’re trying to hide something ugly about themselves. My mom always told me never to do this — that it humiliates people and makes them even worse than they are. Franzen does not play with any such kid gloves: He wants his reader to know exactly what’s wrong with all of his main characters and why, and he is relentlessly detailed and imaginative in his rendering of their deformities.

The result is that Franzen’s four main characters — Walter, Patty, their mutual friend Richard Katz, and their son Joey — are all both extremely self-aware and surgically sensitive. People say what they need to say to get what they think they want– or more commonly, what they wish they wanted. They try to pretend they’re not being selfish when they are; they try to pretend they don’t know they’re hurting one other or setting them up when they do. And for all their efforts, no one is free from the punishing churn of intense self-knowledge nor the lonely inner turmoil that comes of a highly developed sense of empathy. They all read each other like open books, basically, and it is harrowing, especially if you’re the kind of person who is scared more than anything of other people’s secret thoughts.

“I’m just worried that I’m not actually what you want,” Walter says early on, after Patty succumbs to the long and terrible, heretofore unrequited crush he has had on her since the day of their first meeting. Patty, who is 21 at this point, has just spent several days in the company of the cool, magnetic Richard Katz, and has only just decided — yes, decided — that she is not in love with him but Walter after all. She has been unconvincing in her delivery. “I think you’re a wonderful person!” is one of her opening lines. Then, when it’s looking like Walter has some reservations: “I swear you won’t be sorry.”

He goes for it, obviously, even though he knows as well as Patty does that insofar as she really feels something for him, it’s because she has talked herself into it. Alone in their private delusions, the two of them decide to start a life together, thus committing to years of diligently working around the big lie that joins them. And though you feel awful at first as you watch Patty work up to overcoming her ambivalence and Walter go along with it because he just loves her so much, you allow yourself to hope and hope right along with them that it was not a mistake for them to try. It is a testament to Franzen’s power as a storyteller that after living through this emotionally depleting novel, you are not made to feel stupid for this.