Jonathan Franzen: Great American Novelist

21 minute read
Lev Grossman

A raft of sea otters are at play in a narrow estuary at Moss Landing, near Santa Cruz, Calif. There are 41 of them, says a guy in a baseball cap. He counted. They dive and surface and float around on their backs with their little paws poking up out of the water, munching sea urchins or thinking about munching sea urchins.

The humans admiring them from the shore don’t make them self-conscious. Otters are congenitally happy beasts. They don’t worry about their future, even though they’re legally a threatened species and their little estuary is literally in the shadow of the massive 500-ft. stacks of a power plant.

One of the humans admiring them is Jonathan Franzen. Franzen is a member of another perennially threatened species, the American literary novelist. But he’s not as cool about it as the otters. He’s uneasy. He’s a physically solid guy, 6 ft. 2 in., with significant shoulders, but his posture is not so much hunched as flinched. At 50 (he turns 51 on Aug. 17), Franzen is pleasantly boyish-looking, with permanently tousled hair. But his hair is now heavily salted, and there are crow’s-feet behind his thick-framed nerd glasses.

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Franzen isn’t the richest or most famous living American novelist, but you could argue — I would argue — that he is the most ambitious and also one of the best. His third book, The Corrections, published in 2001, was the literary phenomenon of the decade. His fourth novel, Freedom, will arrive at the end of August. Like The Corrections, it’s the story of an American family, told with extraordinary power and richness.

In a lot of ways, Freedom looks more like a 19th century novel than a 21st century one. The trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialization: the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm. After the literary megafauna of the 1990s — like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Don DeLillo’s Underworld — the novels of the aughts embraced quirkiness and uniqueness. They zoomed deep in, exploring subcultures, individual voices, specific ethnic communities.

Franzen skipped that trend. He remains a devotee of the wide shot, the all-embracing, way-we-live-now novel. In that sense he’s a throwback, practically a Victorian. His characters aren’t jewel thieves or geniuses. They don’t have magical powers, they don’t solve mysteries, and they don’t live in the future. They don’t bite one another, or not more than is strictly plausible. Freedom isn’t about a subculture; it’s about the culture. It’s not a microcosm; it’s a cosm.

I’m at Moss Landing to talk to Franzen about Freedom. Franzen is here to look at birds: he’s a bird watcher. (The Brits have a better name for it: he’s a twitcher.) Though right now the tide is in at Moss Landing, and there isn’t much to see apart from the otters: a brown pelican, a pigeon guillemot, a — is that a grebe? A young grebe. No, a loon.

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It’s hard to say exactly what makes Franzen so uncomfortable. It could be me, or it could be the prospect of being on the cover of Time (a legitimately unsettling prospect that puts him in the company of Salinger, Nabokov, Morrison and, twice each, Joyce and Updike). It could be the pressure of having to follow up the huge success of The Corrections, which has sold 2.85 million copies worldwide, or it could be the much fretted-over standing of the novel in America’s cultural-entertainment complex. Or it could be the permanently unsettling nature of the human predicament. Maybe it’s all of the above.

If they could talk, the otters would tell Franzen to man up, chill out and have a sea urchin. But I’m not sure that’s possible for him, or even a good idea. Franzen’s self-consciousness is part of what makes his writing so good, because he is painfully conscious not only of his own self but of your self too. It’s his instrument, in the musical and also the scientific sense: a delicate, finely calibrated recording device. The otters may not be worried. But Franzen is worried enough for all of us.

Franzen is a midwesterner, born outside Chicago and raised in a suburb of St. Louis. But now he and his girlfriend, the writer Kathryn Chetkovich, live on Manhattan’s Upper East Side for most of the year and spend summers at a house in Santa Cruz. From his tiny backyard — it’s a tenth-of-an-acre lot — he can see turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks and olive-sided flycatchers.

If Franzen finds prepublication media attention difficult, at least he doesn’t have to deal with it very often. It took him seven years to write The Corrections. You’d think that having done it three times (his first two novels were The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion), he would find the fourth easier. But no. Freedom took him nine years. “It was considerably more difficult,” he says. “It was a bitch. It really was.”

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This is partly because of the subject matter. The Corrections told the story of the Lamberts, a Midwestern family that goes to pieces spectacularly as the father Alfred succumbs to the slow cerebral throttling of Parkinson’s. Franzen knew this story, sadly, from the inside. “I knew the world of nursing homes and the world of the falling-apart house, and those characters, although they’re cartoons of my parents, they certainly have quite a bit of my parents in them,” he says. “The ones in this book are developed, every one of them, totally from scratch. They had to be dreamed into existence. And that was just miserable work.”

There was extra pressure on Franzen this time, plus an additional layer of self-consciousness left over from the backlash to his success. Americans like to kick people when they’re up, and Franzen got a good American-style kicking over some remarks he made in interviews after Oprah Winfrey picked The Corrections for her book club. Winfrey felt disrespected and ended up uninviting him from her show. Franzen felt his remarks were misrepresented. “I was still angry for a while about the way so many commentators had turned against me,” he says, “and not taken care to actually read my quotes at the time of the Oprah incident.”

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He’s right. Reading his quotes now, you’re struck by two things. One, what a public mugging the whole thing was. Granted, it’s easy to mistake Franzen’s self-conscious silences for aloofness, and in the court of popular opinion all writers are guilty of being elitist pricks until proved innocent. And yes, it’s easy to quote Franzen out of context, because he speaks in very long sentences. (He sometimes scrolls back through his sentences aloud, revising them on the fly.) But those aren’t excuses. See, for example, an interview Franzen gave on Oct. 4, 2001 — the fifth interview he’d given that day — in which he gently chided Winfrey for having made some “schmaltzy” picks in the past. Which she had. But that chiding occurred in the context of a spirited defense of her, which nobody ever got around to quoting because it didn’t make as good a story. Most people now seem to have the impression that Franzen turned down Oprah, not the other way round.

The other thing that strikes you is the contrast between Franzen the writer and person and Franzen the public figure. On the page, Franzen is graceful and funny and totally self-possessed. He’s also a likable guy in private conversation: very smart but alert to what you’re saying and self-deprecating to a fault. But he is a terrible politician and singularly ungifted at what you might call brand management, which for better or worse has become part of the writer’s job in these late, decadent days.

All this is a particular shame because the allegations of elitism leveled at Franzen are not only untrue, they’re the opposite of true. He’s one of contemporary fiction’s great populists and a key ally of the beleaguered modern reader.

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By a strange coincidence, The Corrections was published the week of Sept. 11, 2001, and it sold even though — or maybe partly because — the America it portrayed so accurately had just tragically vanished. After he was done promoting the book, Franzen spent a year sifting through material he’d discarded from it, to see if he could recycle anything. Then he rediscarded it all. He decided to write a political novel, a novel of Washington.

A writer has to be both boxer and trainer at the same time, and Franzen’s trainer is a hard-ass. He writes six or seven days a week, starting at 7 a.m. He’s often hoarse at the end of the day because he performs his dialogue out loud as he writes it. (This may account for its strikingly naturalistic quality. There are habits of American speech in Franzen’s books that I’ve never seen any other writer catch, like the tendency of teenagers to end sentences with a flat, noninterrogative “so.”) Franzen’s friends tend to be writers — The Corrections is dedicated to the short-fiction writer David Means and his wife; the late David Foster Wallace was perhaps his closest friend — so he has somebody to bitch about it with afterward. But the writing itself happens when he’s alone.

Franzen works in a rented office that he has stripped of all distractions. He uses a heavy, obsolete Dell laptop from which he has scoured any trace of hearts and solitaire, down to the level of the operating system. Because Franzen believes you can’t write serious fiction on a computer that’s connected to the Internet, he not only removed the Dell’s wireless card but also permanently blocked its Ethernet port. “What you have to do,” he explains, “is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it.”

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In spite of all these precautions, Franzen got stuck. He wanted to write about the environment, but most nature writing bores him. He wanted to write in the first person. Philip Roth does, so why couldn’t he? But he couldn’t. He hated everything he wrote. He accepted, and then punted, a deadline of fall 2007. He took time off to write journalism. By 2008 he had exactly one thing to show for seven years of work: a voice.

The voice belonged to, as he describes her, “this discontented suburban mom who had a certain kind of laugh, and a certain kind of sarcasm, and a certain kind of rage. She’d emerged in the previous four or five years of struggling.” He didn’t know who she was or what was happening to her, but she felt right.

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In June 2008 he wrote six pages about her, the first pages he didn’t throw away. Then it occurred to him that it had been too long since he’d heard from Wallace.

Wallace and Franzen weren’t just friends; they were part of each other’s writing lives. They had one of those passionate, competitive, creatively useful friendships you sometimes see between writers: Coleridge and Wordsworth, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. “To use, in Dave’s honor, a tennis metaphor, I felt like I had a good hitting partner,” Franzen says. “We had very, very different methods, but I could never comfortably feel, Oh, I have this thing sewn up. Because there was always Dave, goddamn it, being incredibly brilliant.”

But Wallace was ill: he suffered from debilitating depression. That June, the same week Franzen made his breakthrough, Wallace tried to kill himself. “I called while they were in the midst of searching for him,” Franzen says. He immediately flew from Berlin to be with him, and Wallace recovered. But it was a bad summer. September would be worse. “I was just settling down to work again,” Franzen says, “when Dave killed himself.”

Along with grief, one of the feelings Franzen found himself coping with was anger. Strangely, it turned out to be a parting gift from Wallace to his hitting partner. “It was like, man, if you’re going to do that? Be the heroic, dies-young genius? That’s … that’s a low blow. I’m going to have to get off my ass and actually write something.” It was anger, but at least it was energy, and Franzen needed energy badly. You take your inspiration where you find it, or where it finds you.

Wallace was a big tobacco chewer. Franzen didn’t indulge; in fact he’d quit smoking a decade earlier. But the morning after Wallace’s memorial service in New York City, Franzen did something he’d never done before: he walked into a bodega and bought some chewing tobacco. Then he went to his office, closed the door, put a plug in his mouth and started chewing. It was so revolting, he almost threw up. But he kept chewing.

Then he started writing, and he didn’t stop. He finished the first draft of Freedom on Dec. 17, 2009, a little more than a year later.

Like The Corrections, Freedom begins with an overture, a portrait of a family and the house they live in. The family is named the Berglunds, and the house stands in a transitional neighborhood in St. Paul, Minn. Walter Berglund is a lawyer who works for the multinational conglomerate 3M. His wife Patty — she’s the discontented suburban mom — was a star point guard in college. Now she takes care of their two children Jessica and Joey.

It’s a superficially happy household, but the emotional ground on which it stands is not tectonically stable. Walter has unfulfilled ambitions and unresolved anger left over from his upbringing as the son of an alcoholic motel keeper; he will become embroiled in a quixotic campaign to save a songbird called the cerulean warbler. Patty’s lack of a professional career haunts her, and her childhood wasn’t easy either — her parents ignored her in favor of her brighter, quirkier sisters. (When Patty is date-raped at a high school party by the son of rich family friends, her mother’s nonreaction to the news is quietly brutal.) Patty copes by drinking and smothering Joey and nursing a lingering crush on Walter’s college roommate and best friend, an alt-rock musician named Richard Katz. (That friendship owes something — it’s hard to say what exactly — to Franzen’s with Wallace. Richard is a tobacco chewer too.)

Franzen sketches all this with an almost casual vividness. His attitude toward his characters is tender but ruthless, like that of a man who loves his horse but has no choice but to put it down. Patty’s “complexion in the morning, when she came out to collect the blue-wrappered New York Times and the green-wrappered Star-Tribune from her front walk, was all Chardonnay Splotch.” Of Joey’s imperturbable, long-suffering girlfriend, Connie, Franzen writes that “she had the metabolism of a fish in winter.” Unlike a lot of his contemporaries — including Wallace — Franzen is not a stunt pilot. His writing has an unshowy, almost egoless perfection. It does not call attention to itself or to the guy who wrote it. It calls attention to the thing it’s calling attention to.

Freedom is not the kind of Great American Novel that Franzen’s predecessors wrote — not the kind Bellow and Mailer and Updike wrote. The American scene is just too complex — and too aware of its own complexity, for anything to loom that large over it ever again. But Freedom feels big in a different way, a way that not much other American fiction does right now. It doesn’t back down from the complexity. To borrow a term from the visual arts, Franzen’s writing has an enviable depth of field: it keeps a great deal in focus simultaneously. Freedom is not just a domestic novel or a political novel. Franzen doesn’t chop the world up that way. Walter Berglund’s political and environmental passions began in his lousy childhood, which was a product of the history of his family, who emigrated from Sweden, and the vagaries of the economy, which are in turn fatally bound up with the health of the environment, and so on.

The word freedom echoes down the corridors of Freedom. It stalks the characters, cropping up in chance remarks, in song lyrics, engraved on buildings. “It seemed to me,” Franzen says, “that if we were going to be elevating freedom to the defining principle of what we’re about as a culture and a nation, we ought to take a careful look at what freedom in practice brings.” The weird thing about the freedom of Freedom is that what it doesn’t bring is happiness.

For Franzen’s characters, too much freedom is an empty, dangerously entropic thing. After all, energy companies are free to ravage and poison the breeding grounds of the cerulean warbler. If Patty and Walter divorced, they would be free, but it’s a freedom they would do almost anything to avoid. At her lowest ebb, Patty reflects that she “had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable.” And no one is freer than a person with no moral beliefs. “One of the ways of surrendering freedom is to actually have convictions,” Franzen says. “And a way of further surrendering freedom is to spend quite a bit of time acting on those convictions.”

This idea may earn Franzen another all-American kicking — “Oprah-Hating Writer Now Says Freedom Overrated!” — but it is not only true; it is also important. There is something beyond freedom that people need: work, love, belief in something, commitment to something. Freedom is not enough. It’s necessary but not sufficient. It’s what you do with freedom — what you give it up for — that matters.

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Early readers of Freedom, including this one, have found that the book has an addictive quality, the kind one usually associates with mysteries or thrillers. This isn’t by accident. Franzen is very conscious that people are freer than ever — that word again — to spend their time and attention being entertained by things that aren’t books. That awareness has changed the way he writes.

A lot of literary fiction strikes a bargain with the reader: you suck up a certain amount of difficulty, of resistance and interpretive work and even boredom, and then you get the payoff. This arrangement, which feels necessary and permanent to us, is primarily a creation of the 20th century. Freedom works on something more akin to a 19th century model, like Dickens or Tolstoy: characters you care about, a story that hooks you. Franzen has given up trying to impress with his scintillating prose (which he admits he was still doing in The Corrections). “It seems all the more imperative, nowadays, to fashion books that are compelling, because there is so much more distraction they have to resist,” he says. “To me, now, to do something new is not to develop a form for the novel that has never been seen on earth before. It means to try to come to terms as a person and a citizen with what’s happening in the world now and to do it in some comprehensible, coherent way.”

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There are any number of reasons to want novels to survive. The way Franzen thinks about it is that books can do things, socially useful things, that other media can’t. He cites — as one does — the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and his idea of busyness: that state of constant distraction that allows people to avoid difficult realities and maintain self-deceptions. With the help of cell phones, e-mail and handheld games, it’s easier to stay busy, in the Kierkegaardian sense, than it’s ever been.

Reading, in its quietness and sustained concentration, is the opposite of busyness. “We are so distracted by and engulfed by the technologies we’ve created, and by the constant barrage of so-called information that comes our way, that more than ever to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful,” Franzen says. “The place of stillness that you have to go to to write, but also to read seriously, is the point where you can actually make responsible decisions, where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world.”

As a biographical subject, Franzen is no prize. Unlike, say, Hemingway’s or Mailer’s, his life doesn’t exactly teem with incident. He was married once — “an autoclave of a marriage, to another writer,” is how he describes it — but he’s divorced now. The most striking fact about Franzen’s life is that although he writes almost exclusively about families, he has not made one of his own.

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This minor detail hasn’t escaped his notice. In fact, a few years ago, when he was in the weeds with Freedom, he suggested to Chetkovich — this story comes with a rueful I-can’t-believe-I-did-that laugh — that they acquire some children. Adopt some Iraqi war orphans maybe. “I began to think the reason I’m not getting anywhere is that I’m a family guy,” he says. “Family is perhaps my primary prism for refracting the world into meaningful constituents, and one way or another we need to have some kids in our lives.”

But the moment passed. Cooler heads convinced him that the way to get his novel written wouldn’t be to adopt children, it would be to write his novel. If Freedom is all about giving up freedom by committing to things — people, causes, beliefs, life — what Franzen has committed to is not life but art. Novels are his family. As he did with his laptop, Franzen has stripped his world of virtually all distractions. He has never had any other career than this. He doesn’t take vacations. Freedom is dedicated to his editor and his agent.

Franzen’s main extravagance is watching birds, a hobby he took up after The Corrections. Until then, his life had been geared and balanced for constant struggle. “I don’t think, until The Corrections was published and had done well, I’d ever allowed myself joy for its own sake,” he says. “And the bird-watching happened to be what was lying at hand, and I indulged it.”

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The bird-watching isn’t much at Moss Landing, at least while the tide is in. But as the afternoon wears on and the water retreats, a crowd of little birds arrives to feast in the shallows: short-billed dowitchers, Western sandpipers, a black-bellied plover. Franzen hands me the binoculars so I can admire that last, and he’s right: even I, who do not twitch, can see that it’s a hell of a bird, with its solid breastplate of black feathers.

But not even Franzen can watch birds all the time. “There were a couple of years when I could enjoy blowing off a workday and going bird-watching,” he says, “followed by some years in which I came to realize that because my purpose on earth seems to be to write novels, I am actually freer when I’m chained to a project: freer from guilt, anxiety, boredom, anger, purposelessness.”

Birds are supposed to be free, or that’s what the song says, but when Franzen looks at them, that’s not what he sees. Birds aren’t free. They have work to do — eat, breed, fly, sing — and they do it. They’re not paralyzed by self-consciousness or indecision. When Franzen watches birds, he sees himself, but himself at his best, which is at work, miserable work, in his rented office, chewing tobacco (he’s still at it), shouting himself hoarse in front of his crippled laptop. Birds don’t take vacations, and neither does he.

“I’m already losing sleep,” Franzen says, “trying to figure out how to lock myself inside a big novel again.”

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