Welcome to the third and final session of the Salon Reading Club for Jonathan Franzen's novel "Freedom." Last week, we took the discussion up through Page 382, and now it's time to consider the book's conclusion.
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I'm a little ambivalent about the ending of "Freedom." While it was definitely satisfying to see Walter and Patty reunited, part of me thinks it's not very realistic. But perhaps that's the point; if those characters had done what most divorced couples do and kept moving on to new lives, they'd be exercising the American-style freedom about which Franzen is clearly so ambivalent.
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What did you think of the way Franzen depicts the political climate of the mid-2000s? Walter's road trip with Lalitha to promote Free Space is a Magical Hysteria Tour of the endemic rage of the period, which Walter regards as "loony," even though it is, in a fashion, a reflection of the repressed anger he's been nursing since his boyhood in the motel. There's a strong sense that Americans have been making their politics carry an emotional load displaced from their personal lives -- it's a lot less destabilizing to rant on the Internet about Dick Cheney or Bill Clinton than to get into it with your spouse and parents, let alone your own messed-up self -- to the detriment of public life.
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In fact, the whole little neighborhood drama about the cats and the songbirds at the end deftly encapsulates the themes of the book: Walter is right, but in the wrong way. Linda is a monster, but taking her cat to the pound only makes him one, too. But, again, I'm not sure I'm optimistic enough to believe in Patty's solution -- even if I'd like to. (Laura Miller, Road trips, political rage and catnapping,” Salon, 18 Sept. 2010)
Freedom, apparently, is something we pursue until the point where we can chase down what we really want -- rapprochement -- under our terms. All this early consideration of the rape, as if it were a "rosebud" moment, when what it was was a vehicle to leave parents behind you -- justifiably -- so that you can explore / be carried along the currents of the times that move / accompany your adulthood, and rejoin your heritage later as an encounter between one who has experienced and lived and those who have been kept back. Patty doesn't only find her way back into old patterns; she pins down as much as possible both parents on points that have always concerned her. With neither of them is there much potential for an enlarged conversation -- which is just fine if the point is to momentarily enjoy your ability to stand before them undaunted, witness their fainting back and retreating, and thereafter without complication just savor their ties to old assured ways and old strengths before admitting you're -- alas -- confined to always be one of them, intent as you are now to merge back into them.
To this particular contemporary reader, the book feels like (I experienced it as) an accurate account of the last 20 years of liberaldom. A good stretch at first of other-daunting, hells-bells, frontier-like freedom -- ethical households multiplying out of nowhere in run-down neighborhoods -- experienced as without doubt, as pushed forward, as is any first opening of a frontier ("Good neighbors"). Then, Iraq, and terrible self-damning experiences of guilt for voting in a near unified swath of Democratic politicians who supported the war, of seeming as oil-stained as any ol' coarse Republican ("Mountaintop," "Bad News"). Rescue, with Obama -- dramatic re-imagination of image -- ("Fiend of Washington") but troubles still with the economy, with the first couple years, especially, where no one was really confident that the sorts of people who were most going to go under had crystallized (first struggles between Walter, alone, and Linda). And then at the end some sights of a gradual awakening to a realization that a certain class of liberals were going to do okay, to the sense that a certain, specific kind of target was desired, and that you actually have more freedom than you think to move about, to err, and, apparently, to be arrogant (Walter's soul-saving, other-diminishing tirade; then more confidently Patty's expertly managed sequence of pseudo-kindness to Linda, sudden total abandonment of her, and signed, departing "gift" of a cat-balking, bird-turd enclosure), because your central concern for self-abnegating rapprochement over freedom, your overall willingness to cooperate in favoring the downing of emerging age-designated targets -- even if not always with fervor or without regret -- has been repeatedly noticed and unerringly proven to ensure you aren't one of them, and that the way ahead will shortly be guaranteed for you and as gratifyingly delimited, denatured, and era-defining (other drama-obfuscating) as is a settled-upon war (Tea-baggers vs. the Obama-loyal; mangy cats vs. implacable birds).
Walter is a monster for steeling himself to kill the cat, but he sees and recollects Bobby's individuality, and through it, Linda and her family's own personhoods. Patty "maturely" desists in attacking her daughter's blog postings, choosing instead to restrain her true response to it, to her, and just support her enthusiastically with bland, unfocussed praise. To me, our near last sight of Walter was our last glance of something maybe opening up, before a terminus that sealed down everything that might otherwise have been challenged and pithily grown.