Jonathan Franzen: Great American Novelist

At a time when the trend in fiction has been toward specialization, Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections and the new Freedom, is a devotee of the all-embracing, way-we-live-now novel

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Dan Winters for TIME

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.

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.

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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