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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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.

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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