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By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 576 pages, $28

What if Jane Austen’s Bennet sisters had been bright young graduates of Bowdoin or Colgate or Dartmouth, with protective parents, impressive résumés, and no pressure to wed for anything save love? What if Theodore Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths had been an ambitious young investment banker, with no need to marry money (or murder his mistress!) to secure his place in the sun? What if Anna Karenina had simply divorced her husband when she tired of him? What if Mr. Rochester had dumped his deranged wife and married the au pair, consigning the first Mrs. Rochester to the care of a generous welfare state instead of his attic?

They might have been no happier. Consider the musings of Patty Berglund, a privileged, prosperous, and liberated daughter of today’s liberal gentry, whose marital difficulties supply much of what drama there is in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom:

Where did the self-pity come from? The inordinate volume of it? By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable.

No happier, indeed, but possibly less interesting than a Lizzie Bennet or a Rochester, no? A bit more self-indulgent, irritating, and entitled? And thus a little bit harder for a reader to care about, in the absence of the external obstacles and pressures—class and wealth, cultural convention and social stigma, to say nothing of religious and ethical taboos—that generate most of the conflict, and most of the sympathy, in the novels of an Austen or a Brontë, a George Eliot or an Anthony Trollope?

That seems to be the conclusion a great many contemporary novelists have reached—that the lives of the Western bourgeoisie no longer offer a storyteller the kind of material they once did, and that it’s better to delve into what’s still disparagingly called “genre” fiction (dystopia and fantasy, murder mysteries and historical novels) than attempt to imitate the old masters of the novel. Indeed, one could build a reasonably representative library of turn-of-the-millennium fiction—with shelves for authors as diverse as Kazuo Ishiguro and Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson and Michael Chabon, Susannah Clarke and Thomas Pynchon—without including any contemporary versions of the big, thick stories of intimate life that were once the glory of Western literature.

But of course the bourgeois family still exists, still matters, still deserves attention, even if the manicured terrain lacks the dramatic possibilities it once presented. Jonathan Franzen isn’t the only author working in these gardens, but he’s one of the most talented. And for applying his gifts to this most old-fashioned novelistic subject, first in 2001’s The Corrections and now in Freedom, he deserves at least some of the praise that’s been showered on his work.

Nobody dies on September 11 in Franzen’s recent novels, and the Holocaust doesn’t make a cameo appearance; there are no magical happenings or science-fiction contrivances; and there are none of the irruptions of violence that certain other successful practitioners of realistic fiction (Ian McEwan, for instance) often insert to lend urgency to their narratives of intimate life. Instead, Franzen is working with a more basic toolkit: love and marriage, childrearing and adultery, professional ambitions and disappointments. And he’s doing it with characters who feel free, as the inhabitants of the nineteenth century novel weren’t, to do almost exactly as they please—and who rather obviously know it.

At his best, what Franzen makes from this material is very good indeed. There are stretches of Freedom that read like a master class in how to write sympathetically about the kind of characters whose main difficulty is their surfeit of, well, freedom. This is particularly true in the novel’s early going, in which the story of Patty Berglund and her husband Walter unfolds first through a kind of swift, Greek-chorus-style account of their years as gentrifying, Volvo-driving, Fiestaware-collecting parents in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and then through a third-person confession, written by Patty (who, admittedly, writes a lot like Franzen) on the advice of her therapist, that flashes back first to her childhood and then to their collegiate courtship.

What the novel achieves in these pages is a felicitous union of the general and the particular, in which a broad, half-satirical portrait of liberal yuppiedom in the Reagan and the Clinton years (“Merrie . . . had formerly been very active with the SDS in Madison and was now very active in the craze for Beaujolais nouveau”) frames a plausible portrait of a very specific liberal yuppie family. There is Walter, a kind and decent and sensitive and ever so feminist man, who compromises his college-age enthusiasms (the environment, in particular Paul Ehrlich-style anti-population-growth alarmism) to work for Minnesota’s 3M Company, the better to support the hard-charging Patty’s ambition to be the mother her own parents never were. There is Patty herself, a hyper-competitive former college athlete who marries Walter despite her attraction to his not-nice-at-all best friend Richard Katz, an alt-rock musician to whom women come easily but success comes late. There is Joey, the child Patty and Walter rear together, who escapes his father’s weakness and his mother’s smothering by leaping into an intense relationship with the girl next door and her semi-redneck, semi-Republican, totally inappropriate family. And in all of their overlapping stories, there is the shock of recognition that only the most talented novelists can achieve—the sense that we really know these people and thus can feel justified investing ourselves, across five hundred pages and more, in their problems and their fate.

But it turns out that composing a convincing narrative of intimate life is not enough for Franzen. Freedom aspires to be War and Peace as well (a book that’s conspicuously name-checked several times in the course of the story) and capture not only a particular family and their social world but also an entire historical era in the bargain. And since the era Franzen wants to capture is the age of George W. Bush, this requires the Berglunds to be enmeshed, implausibly, in exactly the kind of right-wing political machinations that we could expect them to disdain.

So Walter, the nature-loving, anti-population-growth obsessive, somehow ends up working for a Republican tycoon (and Bush crony) named Vin Haven, whose plans to create a bird sanctuary in West Virginia require opening pristine land to “hunting and motorized recreation” and permitting “coal extraction on nearly a third of it, via mountaintop removal.” (Needless to say, this ends badly for both Walter and the mountains.) Meanwhile, his son, Joey, finds himself seduced by the honeyed words of a Norman Podhoretz manqué into first supporting the invasion of Iraq and then working for a corrupt military-hardware supplier. The political subplot might have been plausible if Franzen had any understanding of why neoconservative ideas might seem appealing to the rebellious scion of a liberal family. Instead, we get a bad parody of Straussianism, complete with explicit references to “benevolent half-truths” and the wisdom of “the philosopher,” that wouldn’t seduce a grade-schooler.

In both cases, the plausibility of Franzen’s story shows cracks: It’s hard to escape the impression that the Berglunds, father and son, get sucked into the vortex of Republican Evil not because of any quality inherent to their characters but merely because Franzen wants to cram his novel full of politically relevant plot details. And to the extent that their choices do tell us something about their characters—namely, that they’re careless and thoughtless and a little dim—it only adds to the impression, which builds slowly but surely throughout Freedom, that Franzen has chosen to lavish his gifts on a rather contemptible lot of people.

I do not just mean that the Berglunds, their offspring, and the always hovering Katz make bad choices or fall prey to bad ideas. I mean that they never display enough redeeming qualities to justify the investment that Franzen convinces us to make in them. They are interesting, they are plausible, they draw the reader in—and then selfishness piles atop selfishness, callowness atop callowness, weakness atop weakness, hypocrisy atop hypocrisy, until it becomes a relief to finally close the book and leave their unpleasantness behind. First, Franzen makes us care about them; then he makes us hate them.

It’s possible that this effect is at least partially intentional—that Franzen means to subject his characters to a withering critique; that the analogies he draws between Walter and War and Peace’s Pierre Bezhukov or between Patty and Natasha Rostova are meant to highlight the moral and spiritual gulf separating Tolstoy’s creations from his own; that the occasional crudeness and laziness of his language (frequently cited by the book’s detractors) is meant to be an indictment of the crude and lazy way too many supposedly educated Americans talk and think; and that the absence of any kind of real idealism in these pages (unless you count the caricature of neoconservatism and Walter’s crabbed, antihumanist environmentalism) is a deliberate attempt to capture the philosophically arid environment in which too many “successful” modern people live.

But even if we grant that the general awfulness of the Berglunds might be a deliberate artistic choice, it still doesn’t justify spending more than five hundred pages in their company. Brevity is the soul of social satire: Evelyn Waugh would have pinned Freedom’s protagonists to the wall in a paragraph, or at least a shorter book. Whereas at this length, this depth, this scope, it’s hard to escape the impression that Franzen’s talents are being wasted on his characters.

Ross Douthat is a New York Times op-ed columnist.