The second in a series of three stirring crisis moments in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. This one occurs just after activist/father/married man Walter Berglund has confessed his love for his much younger assistant Lalitha (and she for him). A fiercely principled man, the moment of weakness is the long-time-coming chink in the armor of self-righteousness and liberal virtue that has gradually walled him off from his loved ones. It’s an instance of idealism finally succumbing to reality, an honest-to-God transgression that sets off an avalanche of suppressed feeling:

He let the phone slip from his hand and lay crying for a while, silently, shaking the cheap bed. He didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know how to live. Each new thing he encountered in life impelled him in a direction that fully convinced him of its rightness, but then the next new thing loomed up and impelled him in the opposite direction, which also felt right. There was no controlling narrative: he seemed to himself a purely reactive pinball in a game whose only object was to stay alive for staying alive’s sake. To throw away his marraige and follow Lalitha had felt irresistible until the moment he saw himself, in the person of [his daughter] Jessica’s older colleague, as another overconsuming white American male who felt entitled to more and more and more: saw the romantic imperialism of his falling for someone fresh and Asian, having exhausted domestic supplies. Likewise the course he’d charted for two and a half years with the [environmentalist organization The Cerulean Mountain] Trust, convinced of the soundness of his arguments and the rightness of his mission, only to feel, this morning, in Charleston, that he’d made nothing but horrible mistakes. And likewise the overpopulation initiative: what better way to live could there be than to throw himself into the most critical challenge of the time? A challenge that then seemed trumped-up and barren when he thought of Lalitha with her tubes tied. How to live?