How to Read a Novelist

Jonathan Franzen
by John Freeman

Last week in Work in Progress we brought you John Freeman’s conversation with Jeffrey Eugenides as the first of an exclusive two-part preview of Freeman’s How to Read a Novelist, his book of more than fifty author profiles coming from FSG Originals this October. This week, we conclude that preview with Freeman’s conversation with Jonathan Franzen.

—Sean McDonald

 

Jonathan Franzen has love on his mind. It is among the recurring themes of his third essay collection, Farther Away, and on a cold afternoon in December, he comes back to the topic frequently over conversation in his Manhattan kitchen—in his own unique way.

“I used to be deathly afraid of throwing up,” Franzen says.

“And when I first began to date the woman I’m living with, she flew out to New York to visit me. She came twice, and I knew she couldn’t come a third time, so I offered to visit her in California.”

Franzen took a plane out to the Bay Area, and she picked him up at the airport and drove him on the long ride to her house.

“The road was really winding and twisty, and sure enough I began to feel really, really sick. We got to her house, which was this cabin up in the redwoods, and I immediately became violently sick.

“And for a whole day, I lay in bed up among these trees and was sick, and yet I didn’t feel ashamed or anything. I just felt very safe. And I knew I was in love.”

Sitting in his extremely tidy kitchen, wearing his trademark glasses and an expression of earnest bemusement and yes, lovesickness, Franzen shrugs at the strangeness of his equation—love equals being able to vomit and be unabashed.

“What can I say, I’m a seventies kind of guy. I mean, I’m a process kind of guy.”

Franzen is referring, partially, to growing up in America at a time when the information-processing models of computers became the model for how we understood experience. We became the stories we told about ourselves.

But he is also demonstrating how he managed to make such a startling leap as a novelist: from a mid-list writer working in the shadow of Don DeLillo with his first two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, to America’s reigning literary novelist.

He has done so by making a deal with readers. “I want to be honest with readers, that is my pact with them.”

And so here we have, as he writes in Farther Away, “the dirt that love inevitably splatters on the mirror of our self-regard.” And just as we love Larry David for letting us laugh at Jerry Seinfeld’s neuroses, we love Franzen for letting us see them in him and, by extension, ourselves.

It has taken some time for Franzen’s frankness to be seen simultaneously as a comedic and a literary device.

In the mid-nineties, when he called out American novelists in Harper’s for abandoning social engagement he was the lugubrious auslander. The buzzkiller. The nerd king: right in concept but perhaps too knowing of his rightness.

All that changed with The Corrections, which proved he was capable of more than just heckling from the nosebleed seats.

What made the book so powerful was its unvarnished view of sacred American pieties: the family, our consumer culture, and the way the two are melded by the notion that we can improve upon the mistakes of our upbringing by starting our own families. Family 2.0.

 

There are moments of humor in Franzen’s first two novels, but they are satires and social critiques, mental laughs rather than belly laughs. “I always wanted to be a comic writer,” Franzen says, “and that’s still what I want to be.”

Chip, the main character of The Corrections, is overeducated and underdeveloped emotionally. Living in Manhattan at the height of the tech boom, childless and unmarried, slipping down an academic ladder, his life has become one white lie after another, told for the purpose of maintaining superiority over his own Midwestern roots.

The book’s long opening set piece, in which his parents, Enid and Alfred, fly in from fictional St. Jude to visit him, is one of the funniest stretches ever written in American fiction. Here are all the pressures of a consumer state—its status-frenzied call to do more, better—bearing down on someone who has internalized their message while at the same time hating them. In one of the apogees of this segment, hoping to impress his parents with his cosmopolitan adult skills, Chip steals a salmon steak at Gourmet Garage, pressing the fish to his groin where it feels like “a cool, loaded diaper.”

Franzen tried to write the novel in the late nineties and failed, and the subject of that failure became some of his best essays. Ruminations on the failure of the American social novel, the society itself, and himself.

He once would have said he was too angry to write, but now, looking back he thinks it was a blessing. “I was lucky to have had that anger because that kind of rage tends to engender comedy, and I was, you know, I was—I was transforming the anger into a kind of cruel comedy.”

 

He honed his success through failure. In the long gap between novels two and three a sea change took place in American publishing. “I did, I believe, one reading from The Twenty-Seventh City when it came out—it was FSG’s lead title, and I did one reading from it—one bookstore reading. For Strong Motion I did two.”

In the late nineties, though, bookstore readings became hugely popular. And even though Franzen didn’t have a new book, he was “in perennial need of funny stuff to read at these readings which would suddenly become de rigueur in the literary culture.”

“Because the things were being written, chunks were being written for reading aloud,” he adds, “I would get to hear them, and I would start cutting lines, ah, a lot of it for comic timing: ‘Okay, that’s too many sentences without a laugh—there’s a problem here, going to have to cut, cut something.’

“In that sense, yes, I think maybe I did become more deliberately a comic writer.”

Even just a few years ago, his mood still contentious, Franzen would have backtracked and immediately undone this statement. He became famous, in interviews, for being the person who interviewed the interviewers’ questions.

As the light begins to fall in Manhattan, though, Franzen comes across as a much milder, warmer, and funnier man than he is often portrayed to be. When he is in California, where he lives half the year with the writer Kathy Chetkovich, he listens to the stand-up Mitch Hedberg while he drives.

 

“He died—heroin, I think. But he was—he was as funny as it got. He had the perfect voice.”

Franzen adopts a super-flat voice register and imitates it.

“The reason I gave up tennis: I knew I was never going to be as good as a wall.”

“I played a wall once . . . It was relentless.”

He keeps going for a while until he can’t speak for laughing. Once his laughter dies down, Franzen veers into talking about Kafka, whom he reads primarily as a comic writer.

“He read the entire manuscript of the Metamorphosis aloud to his friends and they were just, you know, gasping for air because it was so funny. And it is. It’s hilarious!”

Twenty-five years into his writing career, Franzen still writes for misfits. He writes for the people who will find a man who turned into a bug funny.

“Misfits come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and income brackets,” he says, as if to remind me he is still one. “And one of the really heartening things for me is the amount of reader mail I get from people in their teens and twenties, and a number that I see at readings, you know: We’re still somehow producing . . . misfits.”

The publication of a Franzen novel now gives him a chance to meet all these people. The Corrections was a surprise blockbuster, but the release of Freedom, nine years later, proved it was no fluke.

The book was an instant number one New York Times bestseller. Oprah Winfrey made it a book club selection, and this time Franzen went on the show. Barack Obama was seen carrying it on holiday.

All of which is terrific, if you root for literary novels to be at the center of American culture, but it’s also very strange since the novel has so many dark things to say about the country and the cult of family life.

The book, which tells the story of the Berglund family and their fraying in the face of complex relationships, takes aim at the hallowed notion of the word in its title. Namely, that our concept of unfettered freedom is deeply corrosive to the things that keep a family together, such as self-sacrifice and loyalty.

Even though the novel traces these fault lines, it is far kinder to its characters than The Corrections and everything that came before it. Franzen argues this absence of rage has to do with where America has gone in the time he wrote it: “It has to do with becoming less angry and so for some reason all the things that so pissed me off about the country, piss me off less now.”

It seems more likely, however, that Franzen has finally moved beyond a mean kind of humor into something closer to comedy, with grace. He has a little more than half a collection of short stories, all of them break-up stories, which he published in The New Yorker, but he doesn’t think they will be his next book.

“I just don’t have the heart to write any more,” he says, “to be in that mean-funny kind of mode it requires to write them.”

He is writing, however. Normally he is quiet about these things, but, like a person in love, he cannot keep it in. “I’m a ways in,” he says, and before he says more and jinxes himself, he changes his tack to explain what it is like.

“Smells are more powerful, I get on the subway and ride somewhere and everywhere I go I am thinking of it . . . I see things more clearly, colors are more vivid. Everything which feels broken in life feels, in moments like this, more complete.

“I have been publishing for almost thirty years now, and the four years it took me to write my four novels have been,” and here he pauses, silently bracketing the Californian with whom he shares his life, “among the happiest years of my life.”

Jonathan Franzen happy? It is, for those who have read his books, as Kafkaesque a notion as a man waking up and finding he has turned into a bug.

John Freeman is an award-winning writer and book critic who has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal. Freeman won the 2007 James Patterson Pageturner Award for his work as the president of the National Book Critics Circle. How to Read a Novelist

Sean McDonald is Publisher of FSG Originals and Executive Editor and Director of Digital and Paperback Publishing at FSG.

Illustration by W.H. Chong.