Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’: Enjoy the amusing Washington novel inside

image As if the stolen glasses weren’t enough, Jonathan Franzen is in the news for not making the final cut in the National Book Awards.

I myself have mixed feelings about Freedom, but mostly like it. Granted, events and outcomes happen with a little assist from coincidence. But you can accuse Dickens of the same.

What’s more, tucked away in Freedom is an amusing Washington novel with tales of co-opted environmentalists and of Iraq-related defense graft. The dysfunctional Berglund family serves as a first-rate D.C. metaphor in more than one way. Walter, the father, is a people-hating world-saver.

image Franzen’s style has put off some critics, partly because he worked so hard to convey the ineptness of the mother’s imaginary memoir. I agree to an extent. But as a native of the Washington area, I love the memoir’s title: Mistakes Were Made. Yes, the passive. To hell with accountability at the personal or national level!

If politicians really want to end war and poverty, then they should force all bureaucrats and government contractors to write in the active voice as often as possible. Thank you, Mr. Franzen, for aiding the cause. I speak as one of the victims of the BRAC-133 atrocity (whoops—I’m trying to refrain from writing more about the Quarter Pentagon until after the election, since we still don’t know the full cast of genuine villains).

imageDetail #1: After Franzen’s young defense contractor swallows his wedding ring, he ends up at the Inova hospital just up the street from me here in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia. At least that’s my best guess as to which hospital.

Detail #2: Yes, this post includes some passive sentences. But at least I’m not fobbing off blame for a war or budget deficit.

Detail #3 (update): I’ve just run across Jacob Patterson-Stein’s take on Franzen and D.C. He objects to Franzen’s having Walter say, “The neighborhoods are so blah, the only thing that turns people on is proximity to power.” My reply would be, “Look, this is D.C. as Walter and many of those around him are perceiving it.” Furthermore, I hereby grant Franzen some satiric license.

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David Rothman

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