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Put secularly, Franzen, the chronicler of American middle-class epics, will read from and discuss Freedom—aka the most important novel ever—at a PEN/Faulkner lecture in the nave of the expansive cathedral.
Much like The Corrections attempted to reckon with the latter half of the 20th century, Freedom aims to deal with the opening decade of the 21st through the defeatist trials of Walter and Patty Berglund. Seeing this family—a paragon of yuppieism—implode makes the reader relive the political and cultural decay of the Bush 43 years.
Is the Berglunds’ exodus from virtuous Minnesota to the cynical East Coast a loss of innocence? What does their son Joey, more entrepreneurial and libidinous than his parents, imply about contemporary American youth? Is Richard Katz, Patty’s indie-rock crush, a stand-in for the pitfalls of celebrity? Or perhaps Franzen himself?
But really, what the fuck can I say about a novel about which it seems everything has already been said? I’ll confess: I have not finished the book; I’m only as far as Walter’s Howard Beale-esque rant about industry and overpopulation.
Since its release, Freedom has been lavished with near-universal praise. Even Franzen’s would-be detractors, like NPR’s Alan Cheuse, who found Freedom “quite unappealing,” can’t shake the novel’s brilliance. The best critical appraisal may have been from Charles Baxter writing for the New York Review of Books. Citing Franzen’s “great patience,” Baxter called the author’s leniency with his characters “his glory and his curse.” Then again, if Franzen could bury the hatchet with Oprah Winfrey and finally embrace her Book Club, who’s to complain about anything?
At the risk of inciting a new outbreak of Franzenfreude—a condition experienced by other novelists with symptoms like artistic jealousy mixed with critical admiration—the National Cathedral is expecting a near-capacity crowd of over 1,500 on Friday night. Like congregants to the altar—or maybe disaffected Midwesterners to the Mid-Atlantic—the masses are coming out for Franzen.
Friday, Feb. 18. 7:30 p.m. At the Washington National Cathedral, 3101 Wisconsin Avenue NW. (202) 537-2228. $22