Study Guide

Freedom Book 3, Chapter 1

By Jonathan Franzen

Book 3, Chapter 1

Mountaintop Removal

  • OK, ready? Two big switches here: 1) it's 2004; and 2) now we're going to hear things from Richard Katz's point of view.
  • Oh, also: "Richard" will now be referred to only as "Katz."
  • First we catch up on the last three years of his life. Nameless Lake was a huge success. Walnut Surprise went on tour for a long time.
  • Katz was arrested for DUI and drug possession, and spent some time in rehab.
  • Particularly traumatic (!) experiences related to the success of Nameless Lake include a Grammy nomination and hearing his music played on National Public Radio. To someone who for so long had been so far from the mainstream, it actually makes him feels like a sell-out.
  • When Katz can't put it off any longer, he realizes he really has to return to the studio to record a follow-up with his band... so he decides to stop playing music and instead goes back to work building rooftop decks.
  • (Incredibly, after all that success, he's flat broke.)
  • Katz sees his own depressive personality as part of a genetic line leading back to his Jewish ancestors in Northern Europe.
  • He perversely notes that in the past, his best years musically had come during what he considered the country's worst: "Reagan I, Reagan II, and Bush I" (3.1.3).
  • He compares himself to a carp (that is, the fish), which thrives in dark, murky waters.
  • Now, as he writes, it's "Bush II, the worst regime of all" (3.1.3).
  • If it hadn't been for that pesky big-time success, he'd be making great music again. Alas, the thought of it makes him sick.
  • He sees going back to building decks as an alternative to suicide (good choice!).
  • His clients are wealthy downtown Manhattan folks. The third one is a huge Traumatics fan, as it turns out, and doesn't so much want a deck as he wants to be able to tell his yuppie friends that the famous Richard Katz built him one. Whatever works.
  • The guy's wife flirts with Katz arrogantly. The guy's kid is an enthusiastic guitarist and all-around music geek. He peppers Katz with questions about obscure punk rock bands he's never even heard of.
  • Then he asks if he can interview Katz, to impress a girl he likes at his high school. Katz says he will, if the kid agrees to bring the girl to his house the following day. (His plan is to sleep with the girl to crush the kid's spirit. Yeah, we're not even joking. Terrible.)
  • So at the end of the workday, Katz goes down to the kid's home studio (yuck), filled with expensive guitars (yuck), and the kid starts asking him questions.
  • Katz essentially goes on a sarcastic rant, arguing that all musicians (himself included) care only about making money, and are good Republicans, and should do their best to encourage consumer consumption.
  • Here's a good snippet of what he says: "Apple Computers must be way more committed to a better world, because iPods are so much cooler-looking than other MP3 players, which is why they're so much more expensive and incompatible with other companies' software, because – well, it's a little unclear why, in a better world, the very coolest products have to bring the very most obscene profits to a tiny number of residents of the better world" (3.1.84).
  • He concludes that "the iPod is the true face of Republican politics," says the interview is over, and then leaves (3.1.84).
  • He gets a gross dinner at a gyro place and takes the train back to Jersey City. The phone rings; the caller ID says it's Walter. They haven't spoken in two years.
  • Katz doesn't pick up.
  • On the voicemail, Walter says he's in town until tomorrow, and he has "a proposal" for Katz (3.1.107). Maybe he'd like to get together?
  • Katz sits and thinks about Patty for a while – specifically, how he rejected her in order to save her marriage. And although this was definitely the virtuous thing to do, it just ended up making everyone miserable.
  • Katz calls him back immediately, and updates him on his situation. Walter is, to say the least, surprised. He says instead of building decks he should be trashing hotel rooms and going back to writing offensive punk rock songs and all that.
  • Walter asks if Katz can meet him and his assistant tomorrow afternoon.
  • Your assistant? Katz asks.
  • Walter says he has a beautiful young Bengali-American assistant, named Lalitha. She lives in the apartment above Patty and him.
  • The proposal, he says finally, is about "saving the planet" (3.1.145).
  • Katz calls the high school kid and says he can't make it tomorrow after all (which, although the kid is surely disappointed, is absolutely for the best).
  • The next day he meets Walter and Lalitha at a luncheonette.
  • Lalitha is indeed very beautiful, but, incredibly (to him), from the moment Katz sees her, it's obvious she's totally in love with Walter. (This is definitely new territory for Katz, to have a woman uninterested in him, and very interested in Walter.)
  • After some pleasantries, Walter explains he's working for a super-wealthy Big Oil man named Vin Haven. Old-school Republican. Friends with the Bushes and the Cheneys. (In other words, he's the antithesis of everything Walter and Katz have always believed in.)
  • OK, now bear with us, because this is sort of complicated:
  • What Walter does for Mr. Haven is run the Cerulean Mountain Trust. Haven is an enthusiastic birder (that is, he likes watching little birds and shooting big birds), and has decided to devote a whole lot of money (around $100 million) to save just one threatened bird species: the cerulean warbler.
  • The most important habitat for the cerulean warbler is in central Appalachia, particularly in southern West Virginia.
  • Since Vin Haven has lots of buddies in the coal industry (lots of coal in West Virginia, of course), he thinks he'll be able to partner with some coal companies to create a large, permanent wilderness reserve for the cerulean warbler (and, needless to say, other birds) in West Virginia.
  • But the concern for the coal companies is that if the warbler continues to decline it will be declared an endangered species, which means it will be protected, which means they'd be prevented from mining an even larger area than the reserve they'd be creating.
  • One big problem with this plan, Walter admits, is that before they'd be allowed to set aside this reserve (a hundred square miles big), the coal companies would be allowed to fully mine one-third of it, via mountaintop removal (you'll remember the title of this chapter).
  • For those of you who've never heard about mountaintop removal, well here's a handy summary: "Mountaintop removal as currently practiced was ecologically deplorable – ridge top rock blasted away to expose the underling seams of coal, surrounding valleys filled with rubble, biologically rich streams obliterated" (3.1.187).
  • (Also, as a side note, here's an example of what it looks like.)
  • At the same time that he's working to create this reserve in West Virginia, Walter has also been travelling to Colombia (South America), setting up another reserve there, because that's where the warbler migrates to in winter. So at least that part's done.
  • But here are the problems on the West Virginia side.
  • One, setting aside the reserve will mean having to relocate 200 families that live in the area.
  • A considerably bigger problem is that Vin Haven has not been entirely honest with Walter about his motivations.
  • It turns out that back in 2001, Haven's good buddy Vice President Cheney gave him some secret insider information: that President Bush would soon change the laws surrounding natural gas extraction that would suddenly make natural gas economically feasible in West Virginia. And surprise, surprise, Vin Haven went ahead about bought up a whole bunch of mineral rights in the area. His cover for this secret information, of course, is the Trust. (Big thumbs down, Haven.)
  • And now he's starting to sell off pieces of that land, which will start getting drilled very soon.
  • Walter admits that he got duped. But now, he says, he and Lalitha are doing some sneaky business of their own. The plot thickens.
  • Walter then goes off a little bit about why he took the job in the first place – basically because he was furious that President Clinton had done nothing about the environment, and then Bush was making things much worse and he couldn't stand to see his neighbors SUVs and lush green chemically-treated lawns without doing something about it.
  • Katz is actually quite surprised by how angry Walter has become.
  • But Katz asks how saving one little blue bird has anything to do with what they had always agreed, back in college, was the ultimate environmental problem: overpopulation.
  • And Lalitha says that tackling overpopulation is exactly why they asked him to meet today.
  • Walter argues that overpopulation is the "final cause" of the warbler's decline (basically because lots of people have lots of cats, and lots of cats eat lots of birds. It's sort of a stretch, but hey).
  • Walter and Lalitha feed Katz some scary numbers about Earth's population: "we're going to add another three billion [people] by 2050" (3.1.273).
  • Walter also rants a little more about the state of politics in America: "The conservatives won. They turned the Democrats into a center-right party. They got the entire country singing 'God Bless America,' stress on God, at every single major-league baseball game. They won on every f***ing front, but they especially won culturally" (3.1.283).
  • Walter says that although people used to talk about overpopulation, no one mentions it anymore.
  • So their plan, as they explain it, is to make overpopulation cool. They want Katz to headline "some sort of music-and-politics festival, maybe in West Virginia, with a bunch of very cool headliners, to raise awareness of population issues. All focused entirely on young people" (3.1.303).
  • Richard is less than enthusiastic. But he says he'll think about it.
  • He and Walter travel together to Penn Station.
  • Walter talks about how much he loves New York and how much he hates Washington.
  • Katz asks him if he realizes Lalitha is totally in love with him. He also asks Walter if he fantasizes about her.
  • They get on the subway. A young fan spots Katz and tells him how great he is.
  • They get to Penn Station and finally talk about Patty.
  • Walter gives this update: She's terribly depressed. She's working at a gym. She had been seeing a therapist in St. Paul (which we already know) and he had her writing some sort of personal history (which we've already read).
  • While she was working on that, things were OK. But in the two years since, they've been awful. She tried an antidepressant, but didn't like it. She thought about starting a second career, but she really doesn't have any skills. So Walter forced her to get a job. So now she's addicted to exercising. And when she comes home she asks Walter why he isn't sleeping with Lalitha yet.
  • Katz interprets all of this, unsurprisingly, as hidden messages to him from Patty, telling him it isn't over between them.
  • He notes the parallels between her life and his own. Focus, Katz!
  • Walter mentions finally that Patty and Lalitha don't even speak. Like, they refuse to be in the same room together. How pleasant that must be to live together!
  • The guys agree it feels great to catch up. Walter chokes up a little bit. Katz internally vows to clean up the unfinished business with Patty, for all of their sakes.

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