Franzen is such a great story-teller, for starters. Having finished a book about such an average family after all as the Berglunds, with such typical problems as generation gap and husband-wife gap, you might wonder what prompted you to read it through, avidly. Maybe the authenticity of the characters, as real people? Maybe Franzen’s implicit, at times explicit, even slightly sarcastic irony at the American politics? Maybe the compassion that emerges from the story, and which you feel compelled to share? Possibly a mix of all this.
But as in The Corrections, Franzen is much more than a great story-teller. He’s one of those rare writers who take a ‘story’ to the philosophical level that human life can rise to. You read the Berglunds story wondering what freedom has to do with this continual competitiveness for appreciation, with the restless resentment or dissatisfaction mixed with guilt and shame, and most of all what freedom has to do with all those wrong decisions that only lead people to inflict pain upon themselves and on the others. ‘Mistakes were made’ seems to me the central statement of this book, the one sentence that could capture all its meaning. And what about Freedom?
Freedom is, as Franzen’s book suggests, the stage when we have gone beyond our mistakes, and the mistakes of the others unto us. When we have come to that deep humaneness where we can take each other for what we are and be ready to understand each other’s motives and strife. Freedom is when the Berglunds make peace with their parents, with their offspring, and with each other. But don’t let yourselves be fooled: this never comes during a self-help session, or overnight. First we must make mistakes, then deal with grief, to be able to rise again – free.