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Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom"--the Liberal as Crank-- and Tolstoy


Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom celebrates the middle class liberal as environmentalist crank in a novel that is a bad imitation of Tolstoy's War and Peace.

 The middle section of Franzen's novel were quite entertaining like a good sit com focusing on the triangle of Walter Berglund, an environmental bureaurcrat; his wife Patty; and his best friend Richard, a punk rocker; these sections follow the trio from college to mid-life crises in their 40s showing how two best male friends always compete for decades including competing for the same woman Patty. This reader always looked forward to Katz's reappearance as he has slivers of insight and honesty while Patty and Walter are two of the most unaware characters. As Katz disappeared at p. 381 the rest of the novel was tedious.

At one point Patty, trying to get into bed with Richard, is reading Tolstoy's War and Peace, and Franzen thinks his novel in some way is the big realist novel--562 pp.--like Tolstoy's big novel. Patty when 1st reading the novel gets "mired in a military section" but as she continues, she reads where 16-year old Natasha Rostov falls in love with Prince Andrei and now Patty even read's the "military stuff." After reading this, she sleepwalks her way into Richard Katz's bed—War and Peace as aphrodisiac!  Patty even calls her husband Pierre, the hero of War and Peace.

The military stuff is to me the best parts of War and Peace. Tolstoy had been a soldier in the Crimean war and knew war, describes the French invasion of Russia to bring liberty, equality, and fraternity through their bayonets. The war chapters  which are riveting show how French reach Moscow, how the Russians fled,  and how the French looted Moscow. Shades of Baghdad! Tolstoy's novel is from the viewpoint of those being invaded show the full horrors of war while Franzen writes a novel spanning the years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq from the viewpoint of those in the country that invades another, small country. Actually, the Iraq War comes up  in Freedom as second rate satire when Walter’s son goes Republican, works for right-wing think tanks, and rakes in a small fortune selling defective truck parts to the U.S. army in Iraq.

In Tolstoy's novel shows his hero Pierre's transformation from bumbling aristocratic fool  to at novel's end a middle age man plotting with his aristocratic friends for the Decembrist Revolution, the 1st great revolution to bring a democracy to Russia. The modern 21st century Pierre in Franzen's book,  Walter, is also a fool for  working for a Texas billionaire to make a bird preserve which involved making deals with coal companies so they could do mountaintop removal. The novel seemed to be at this point an interesting satire of Big Green—liberal honchos who wind up doing more harm than good through political dealing. Walter does denounce his job but the lashes out at poor West Virginians for being desperate for jobs.  While Tolstoy's Pierre transforms because of meeting an amazing and heroic peasant,  Walter thinks  the poor are unruly, messy, have too many babies, and shit in the woods.

Walter does get free of his delusions that he can collude with coal companies to save birds—one version of freedom for Franzen. Walter’s son becomes free of his delusion of making millions by selling defective truck parts to the U.S. army.  In Franzen’s novel freedom mostly seems to be freedom from:  freedom from such delusions for the quick buck or freedom from adolescent neurosis about being angry at one’s parents for how they mistreated you.  Both Walter and Patty are portrayed as having miserable adolescences and having miserable parents, but by novel’s end Patty reconciles with her dying father, heals all the family feuds,  and get $75,000. One after another of Franzen’s main characters at the end come up smiling roses—free at last of neurosis and in the cash.

At the novel’s end Walter is back at his mother's place on Nameless Lake hating his working class neighbor who loves her cat which eats birds. Franzen's characters repeatedly in the novel denounce working class louts for wrecking the environment, and Walter and Patty take their most drastic action actions against these working louts: in chapter 1 Patty slashes the tires of a working class neighbor for cutting down the trees in his backyard to build a den and in the end Walter kidnaps the bird-eating cat. It seems a crime in Franzenland to love one's cat, to build a den in one’s backyard,  or to want to have a job. Tolstoy, in contrast, was obsessed with bringing equality to Russia and renounced his priviledges as an aristocrat.

Unlike Patty, Walter never seems to heal his adolescent neurosis, and at novel’s end Walter has never forgiven his older brother Mitch for adolescent torments now goes to see Mitch who is job and homeless. Walter has inherited their mother’s house on Nameless Lake, and the house has been vacant for years. Walter finds Mitch living in a campground but decides not to offer Mitch the vacant house because Walter and his girlfriend—both well-heeled urban professionals—might want to live there.  Franzen in a novel seemingly celebrating family and devoted to family has Walter neglect his own family in need--a heartwarming message for the Big Recession.

The best people can do in Franzenland at the end  to save a few birds like Walter and to be nice to her family and neighbors like Patty. In contrast, Tolstoy has real heroes:  the Russian people who survived a hideous French invasion; the peasant  Karataev who taught Pierre about honesty and integrity; and  General Kutuzov who is wise and patient trying to save lives of his men. In Russia people have real patriotism and fight for their country while in Franzenland the poor Appalachian woman with two sons fighting in Iraq is pursuaded to sign away her land to get a check and a job in a body armour plant. In Franzen's novel she is thought to be a fool while the small number of Appalachian enviornmentalists opposed to Walter's sellout led by  Jocelyn Zorn are ignored as "nutcases." When Zorn's group blockade the road with their cars to stop mountaintop removal, their heroism is dimissed as more nutcase activity--anyone willing to stand a principled stand  such as Tolstoy as nutcase.

  Franzen enters with Walter  focused on his anti-cat crusade as two of his neighbors on Nameless Lake are foreclosed. It’s the lout neighbors who help the two families in want, not Walter obsessed with birds. Tolstoy has his heroes become  revolutionaies for democracy at the end rather like some Egyptian citizens of spring 2011.   If you want to read a book with a big heart, read War and Peace.

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Julia, I read the NY Times


I read the NY Times book review, "Peace and War," and your book review.

I appreciate yours because I don't want to be disappointed after reading 562 long pages in English. Last time I read that long novel was "1Q84" by Murakami Haruki, but it was in Japanese which demanded less effort from me.

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Peace and war.

Glad to save you some time.