Freedom is not, by any means, a perfect book. One-third of the novel is supposed to have been written by Patty as a therapist-inspired autobiography, but Franzen never establishes a textual voice for her that’s different enough from his own; she sounds more like a brilliant novelist than a former jock, housewife, and Starbucks barista. (“They seemed to have been born with a Victorian sense of child comportment—even their screaming, when they felt obliged to do it, was preceded by a moment or two of judicious reflection,” she writes about a couple of children she’s babysitting.) One of the book’s climactic moments, in which Walter makes a memorable speech at a press conference, strikes me as implausible—a victory of plot and message over character. And, most obviously, there’s Franzen the crank—mighty detester of Twitter, ATVs, and housing developments—who occasionally steps in to overpower Franzen the artist. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether it’s the author or his characters ranting about consumerism, the bloodlust of America’s domestic cats (they kill something like one billion songbirds a year), and the younger generation’s disturbing habit of wearing flip-flops: “It’s like the world is their bedroom,” Patty says. “And they can’t even hear their own flap-flap-flapping, because they’ve all got their gadgets, they’ve all got their earbuds in.”
But if crankiness is the motor that powers Franzen’s art, I’m perfectly willing to sit through some speeches. My irritation with crabby manipulative Franzen is, after all, just a testament to the life of his characters, who are so real I desperately want him to leave them alone, and let them run free.