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

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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."

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 Powells.com 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.

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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