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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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.

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."

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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