Jonathan Franzen's 'Freedom': The Green American Novel?


Over the last couple weeks, praise has been pouring in for Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom. All that praise was expected to pour in, with Franzen having assumed the role of our premier Great American Novelist ever since publishing 2001's much-acclaimed The Corrections. So it's not surprising that Franzen's latest book, his first in 9 years, is good. It's not surprising that the novel launches a finely nuanced, hilariously scathing probe into middle class American life over the last decade. But what is surprising is that it also reveals how deeply sustainability issues have become ingrained in popular culture -- and popular anxiety. And that's why Jonathan Franzen may have inadvertently written the Green American Novel.The 'Green' Cultural Era
The last decade, after all, saw an undeniable public trend develop towards what can be vaguely, and accurately, be termed 'sustainable' living and thought. Spurred by growing conscientiousness of climate change, 'green' steadily, and often awkwardly, entered the mainstream.

In many ways, this shift was more a cultural shift than a practical one -- consider that our governmental policies have changed little regarding the way we consume resources and emit greenhouse gas pollution, and that net emissions in the United States have only dipped because of the recession. And yet 'green' the notion was ubiquitous -- it was applied to the products we bought and the services businesses rendered (or at leas the publicity department's descriptions of them), it was mulled thoroughly by the upper/middle class, and was the zeitgeist-y subject of books, TV specials, magazine articles, and yes, blogs.

'Green' described a cornerstone of scientific and liberal political thought, and it makes sense that it provides one of the foundational pillars for Franzen's novel. Let me be clear here: the book isn't about the sustainability movement, or green consumerism, or activism, though there is a segment that touches on the latter topic. Franzen's book has more to say about the psychology of sustainability. Along the way, however, he tackles mountaintop removal mining, species decline, habitat conservation, population control, and suburban sprawl (to name a few).

Sustainable Psychology
Few novels have seriously examined the prototype for the modern day environmentalist, after all -- urban gentrifiers and conservation-minded suburbanites who might, say, buy organic and bike to work, and who'd like to consider living according to sustainable values second nature. That Franzen does so, occasionally unflatteringly, in Freedom is only another reason for greens to read it -- we may recognize more in the motivations of his characters' world-saving ambitions than we'd care to admit.

The novel tells the decades-spanning history of the Berglund family, of parents Walter and Patty, and of their son and daughter. Walter is an idealistic, uber-nice employee of the Nature Conservancy. He embodies many of the ethics championed here at TreeHugger: He raises his family in a dense urban community, rides his bike to work or takes public transportation, is worried about global warming, considers sustainability constantly, and takes conservation issues serious enough to make working on them his livelihood. He's about as 'green' as you get.

Review of Jonathan Franzen's 'Freedom' continues on Page 2

Related Content on