i have been compulsively (re)reading jonathan franzen’s 2010 novel freedom since i picked it up from a friend’s bookshelf monday while waiting for him to finish meditating or something.Imagei simply cannot get it out of my head. i feel like it’s living under my skin. far more gifted reviewers than i am have already discussed the way that the message that freedom can itself make you feel trapped resonates through the book. and, as a freelance journalist and service industry food-scooter, i can definitely attest to the overarching sense i often have that the freedom of my lifestyle to do as i please, set my own schedule and have very few responsibilities while still making enough to live comfortably is actually very bad for me on an intellectual and soul level. like the knife of my mind and personality are being dulled, and motivating myself to keep them sharp is hard work that i sometimes fail to do. franzen really captures that here:

There was her cherished freedom to go up to Nameless Lake for weeks at a time whenever she felt like it. There was a more general freedom that she could see was killing her but she was nonetheless unable to let go of.

and but so, i was laying in bed last night listening to the national’s tiny desk concert, and it occurred to me that they’re kind of like the opposite of freedom.
so many of their songs are about not being free, like the first song in the tiny desk concert, “this is the last time” seems to be about the singer’s inability to become free from a bad relationship that he keeps returning to. or, oh my god, “baby we’ll be fine,” one of their finest songs, in terms of commentary on the pitfalls of middle class american life. consider these lyrics:

All night I lay on my pillow and pray
For my boss to stop me in the hallway
Lay my head on his shoulder and say
“Son, I’ve been hearing good things”

i guess the thing that makes both this book and this band great is that they explore our very complex relationships to freedom in sad, big-hearted, beautiful terms, terms that all of us can relate to and see our own reflection in. and maybe the key to feeling okay about what you’re i’m doing with your my life lies somewhere in the balance between the two.

or maybe i’m full of beans.

2 thoughts on “the national & franzen’s freedom: comment on american life

  1. Rachel: So funny — I just finished reading “Freedom” last week, and am currently listening to The National’s new record “Trouble Will Find Me,” and so your post’s timing was wonderfully serendipitous timing-wise for me. I know what you mean about “Freedom” feeling obsessive. I ached to finish it, in a way, but then it lingered with me in a way I can’t quite shake. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Anna, so nice to hear from you! I definitely experienced that “ache to finish” Freedom the first time I read it, just after it first came out. It was so full of unpleasantness between people, and I remember just cringing at so many parts. But this second time around, it’s hitting me in a totally different way — I find myself really feeling for these characters. I think I might give The Corrections a try next.

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