Fourth Estate (2010), 562 pages
Book Depository, €17
The United States is “the land of the free” but what, exactly, does freedom mean to an American family living in a modern world filled with uncertainties, infidelities, hopes, and disappointments? Patty Berglund was a college basketball ace. She married Walter Berglund, an environmentalist into alternative music, even though she feels more attracted to Walter’s best friend, a punk lead singer called Richard Katz. Patty’s own parents place their own political and social ambitions above the emotional needs of their family. When Patty is raped by the son of a well-connected family friend her parents persuade her not to report the crime. Patty is attracted by the stability and love Walter provides but also desires his roommate, the edgier Katz. The story really begins just as Patty’s children, Joey and Jessica, in their late teenage years, and are beginning to experience their first taste of freedom from parental control. For the Joey freedom is like the forbidden fruit,”He’d asked for his freedom, they’d granted it, and he couldn’t go back now. There had been a brief spate of familial phoning after 9/11, but the talk had mostly been interpersonal, his mom amusingly ranting about how she couldn’t stop watching CNN even though she was convinced that watching so much CNN was harming her, his dad taking the opportunity to vent his longstanding hostility to organized religion, and Jessica flaunting her knowledge of non-Western cultures and explaining the legitimacy of their beef with U.S. imperialism.” (p.241-242)
Walter and Richards’ college days are marked by an undercurrent of competitiveness. Richard is the cooler of the two who can get any girl he wants but he respects Walter’s intelligence and taste. Richard “wins” during the college years but, as Richard’s musical career peters out, Walter becomes a highly successful and respected enviromentalist. Once Patty’s kids have flown the nest she becomes increasingly depressed and distant. It’s almost as a way of reasserting his dominance that Richard sleeps with Patty. On the surface Walter doesn’t find out about Patty’s infidelity with his best friend but it’s possible he suspects as much.
The characters are free to make choices. Like most people the characters rationalise their potentially immoral decisions. From the personal level to the international sphere there are many choices to be made. Joey, who secretly married his girlfriend Connie, is attracted to his college roommate’s sister, Jenna. Jenna’s family is well-connected and Joey is willing to adapt his beliefs (religious and political) to enable him, despite a complete lack of knowledge, to gain a highly paid job developing the post-war Iraq economy. Before this Joey had discussed the nature of freedom with Jenna’s father, Howard,””Isn’t that what freedom is for? The right to think whatever you want? I mean I admit it’s a pain in the ass sometimes.” Around the table people chuckled at this. “That’s exactly right,” Jenna’s father said. “Freedom is a pain in the ass. And that’s precisely why it’s so imperative that we seize the opportunity that’s been presented to us this fall. To get a nation of free people to let go of their bad logic and sign on with better logic, by whatver means are necessary.”” (p.267-268)
To Howard the end justifies the means and that, “We have to learn to be comfortable with stretching some facts.” (p.167) Howard is completely confident that his vision is the correct one. He has no doubts that he has a moral right to impose his vision of freedom on his own nation and one on the far side of the globe. He is confident that his vision should represent the U.S. vision, the “we” is a conflation of the personal and the national. It is convenient that his beliefs enable him to earn a lot of money and be socially respected.
Richard’s new band, Walnut Surprise, becomes popular on the alternative music scene but Richard shuns the aclaim his album (written during his affair with Patty) garners. In some ways Richard is the opposite of Howard. Richard is afraid of selling-out, of being seen to conform. He is the ultimate free spirit but he also is selfish and unreliable. Freedom even allows the freedom not he exist. Like his ex-girlfriend Molly, he contemplates suicide (as does Patty). Unlike Molly he decides to continue living.
Joey, to the horror of his father, is willing to act the right-wing Republican in order to help fabricate reports on the post-war Iraqi bakery industry. However, he begins to realise the error of his ways when he becomes invlolved in shipping rusty spare parts to a shady contractor in Iraq. He realises that the decisions he makes might cost the lives of U.S. soldiers.
Walter, despite his anger with son, is also compromising his principles to create a nature reserve for the cerulean warbler. Local residents will have to be relocated and coal mining will be allowed before the land is returned to a pristine state. But is it possible to return such land to a pristine Eden-like state? Can an industry that places profit before people be trusted?
The book raises many questions; was Patty right to sleep with Richard? Was Richard right to sleep with his best friend’s wife? Should Walter sleep with Lalitha? Is Walter right to be dealing with coal mining companies to establish a conservation area for the cerulean warbler? Is the U.S. right to invade Iraq? Is Joey right to treat his girlfriend Connie so badly? Is it okay for Joey to make a lot of money shipping scrap metal instead of proper spare parts to the U.S. Army in Iraq?
Walter and Joey partially redeem themselves, in different ways, for their sins. Howard is adept at streching facts to suit his purpose without guilt. For the Berglund family they struggle to live with the guilt and the consequences of their actions. The freedom to destroy yourself is an ever-present fear, “People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.” (p.361)
The freedom created by Franzen is a freedom within certain limits. The cerulean warbler also creates the illusion of freedom. But it must live within a certain geographical and climatic range. It appears free but it follows millenia old migratory patterns. The vast majority if U.S, citizens have migrated there too but, “it wasn’t the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn’t get along well with others.” (p.444) Peoples exercise of freedom does not take place in a vacuum. There are myriad overlapping interests as people exercise their freedoms. Sometime these overlaps are positive and relationships take place, children are created. On other occasions conflicts, even war, may occur when people feel that their freedoms and rights are being unfairly limited. The question is how much freedom is necessary to live a full life? “(The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage).” (p.445)
Is there such a thing as too much freedom, a freedom without consequnces or guilt, a freedom that can be used to justify the most terrible acts?