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

But Walter's greenness has roots far outside of altruistic instincts -- growing up in an isolated small town in Northern Minnesota, in a chaotic household headed up by an alcoholic father, a hard-working but exploited mother, and good-for-nothing, fun-loving brothers, Walter became the odd man out. A natural bookworm, he uses his intellect to attempt to order the household -- his "first act of rebellion" is drawing up a No Smoking sign which he puts on the door to the room he shares with his asthmatic brother.

The implication is that helping out the meek or the voiceless empowers him in a way that his disposition doesn't otherwise allow for -- and this tendency stays with him well into his adult life. Furthermore, Franzen trots out the familiar theme of the burdened finding solace in nature, which Walter does as well, finding some precious few truly happy moments making a nature documentary about bitterns while staying in his family's abandoned cabin. That is, until his noisy brother shows up to turn the place into a party house, blasting hard rock and revving up his ATVs. The intrusion devastates Walter -- further honing his instinct to protect, to conserve.

Now, Franzen isn't making a blanket statement about greens or environmentalists through Walter, but he is suggesting that there are often deep-rooted personal motivations behind living and advocating sustainable ideals. In an interesting turn, Walter's son Joey interprets his father's do-gooding as condescending (part of why he becomes a vocal Republican) and revolts against them, becoming an unscrupulous entrepreneur.

The Omnipresent Population Problem
Yet Franzen's characters are genuinely concerned about the world's unsustainable nature, and the author is sympathetic to the intellectual weight of the problem, though he may satirize how and why they go about "solving" it. Which brings us to the root of the problem, so to speak: population. Walter's developed a fixation on population growth issues in college, and vestiges of a Zero Growth ideology persisted throughout his life -- it seems to have lead to his steadfast adoption of green values as a family man. And here, Freedom has more in common with other 'green' novels.

Typically, the only novels that folks would describe as 'green' or 'environmental' are either a) high-concept sci fi-tinged tomes like Ishmael, b) conservation-focused adventure books, or, most often, c) visions of an all-out apocalypse or crumbling dystopias. Books like Brave New World, Oryx and Crake, Make Room! Make Room! and The Road all ponder absolute ecosystem collapse and the resulting crippling of humanity (Slate has a good piece explaining this literary tradition). The Road, the most recent entry into that legacy, struck the British climate writer George Monbiot so fully that he proclaimed McCarthy to be one of the "50 people who could save the planet," writing that the Road "could be the most important environmental book ever. It is a thought experiment that imagines a world without a biosphere, and shows that everything we value depends on the ecosystem"

These apocalyptic scenarios are almost always borne out of the author's Malthusian anxiety -- the fear that there are simply too many people consuming too many resources, and it will lead to hell on what's left of Earth. But Franzen humanizes that fear, and sends it up at the same time. While Walter, later in life, is embarking on a crusade to start a new national campaign to raise awareness for population issues, he can't help but think about having a child with the woman he loves. He's already had two kids.

The characters have pseudo-intellectual discussions about how population growth is the root of all environmental woes, but only a lone, youthful activist is willing to live the ideals espoused therein. Such apparent hypocrisies abound in the novel: Walter eventually leaves the Nature Conservancy to set up the Cerulean Mountain Trust -- a coal company-funded agency that supports both conservation and mountaintop removal mining. Walter buys into studies that show that mined mountains can be reclaimed and be used as a sanctuary for an endangered bird species, perhaps blinded by the fact that he's suddenly making much more money, and that he'll receive enough funding to launch his aforementioned anti-population growth campaign.

'Green' Living
But none of these contradictions are meant as an indictment on those attempting to steer their lives by a sustainable compass, far from it. Instead, they depict the inherent clash between our rampant, selfish instincts and a genuine desire to do right. There is much more 'green' material in the novel that I'm leaving out -- commentary on modern eco activism, the deep ties between fossil fuel corporations and political culture, a curious treatise on the menace of outdoor cats to bird population, and so on. And the novel isn't perfect -- it's often too cynical and unsympathetic to its wretched characters. But the deeply human look at what it means to strive for a sustainable existence, prodded on by demons and all, is what resonated most. It's what made Freedom the best novel I've read about the personal struggle involved with figuring out how to live responsibly in 21st century America.

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Tags: Book Reviews | Books | Conservation | United States


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