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

  • Dan Winters for TIME

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    In spite of all these precautions, Franzen got stuck. He wanted to write about the environment, but most nature writing bores him. He wanted to write in the first person. Philip Roth does, so why couldn't he? But he couldn't. He hated everything he wrote. He accepted, and then punted, a deadline of fall 2007. He took time off to write journalism. By 2008 he had exactly one thing to show for seven years of work: a voice.

    The voice belonged to, as he describes her, "this discontented suburban mom who had a certain kind of laugh, and a certain kind of sarcasm, and a certain kind of rage. She'd emerged in the previous four or five years of struggling." He didn't know who she was or what was happening to her, but she felt right.

    In June 2008 he wrote six pages about her, the first pages he didn't throw away. Then it occurred to him that it had been too long since he'd heard from Wallace.

    Wallace and Franzen weren't just friends; they were part of each other's writing lives. They had one of those passionate, competitive, creatively useful friendships you sometimes see between writers: Coleridge and Wordsworth, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. "To use, in Dave's honor, a tennis metaphor, I felt like I had a good hitting partner," Franzen says. "We had very, very different methods, but I could never comfortably feel, Oh, I have this thing sewn up. Because there was always Dave, goddamn it, being incredibly brilliant."

    But Wallace was ill: he suffered from debilitating depression. That June, the same week Franzen made his breakthrough, Wallace tried to kill himself. "I called while they were in the midst of searching for him," Franzen says. He immediately flew from Berlin to be with him, and Wallace recovered. But it was a bad summer. September would be worse. "I was just settling down to work again," Franzen says, "when Dave killed himself."

    Along with grief, one of the feelings Franzen found himself coping with was anger. Strangely, it turned out to be a parting gift from Wallace to his hitting partner. "It was like, man, if you're going to do that? Be the heroic, dies-young genius? That's ... that's a low blow. I'm going to have to get off my ass and actually write something." It was anger, but at least it was energy, and Franzen needed energy badly. You take your inspiration where you find it, or where it finds you.

    Wallace was a big tobacco chewer. Franzen didn't indulge; in fact he'd quit smoking a decade earlier. But the morning after Wallace's memorial service in New York City, Franzen did something he'd never done before: he walked into a bodega and bought some chewing tobacco. Then he went to his office, closed the door, put a plug in his mouth and started chewing. It was so revolting, he almost threw up. But he kept chewing.

    Then he started writing, and he didn't stop. He finished the first draft of Freedom on Dec. 17, 2009, a little more than a year later.

    Like The Corrections , Freedom begins with an overture, a portrait of a family and the house they live in. The family is named the Berglunds, and the house stands in a transitional neighborhood in St. Paul, Minn. Walter Berglund is a lawyer who works for the multinational conglomerate 3M. His wife Patty — she's the discontented suburban mom — was a star point guard in college. Now she takes care of their two children Jessica and Joey.

    It's a superficially happy household, but the emotional ground on which it stands is not tectonically stable. Walter has unfulfilled ambitions and unresolved anger left over from his upbringing as the son of an alcoholic motel keeper; he will become embroiled in a quixotic campaign to save a songbird called the cerulean warbler. Patty's lack of a professional career haunts her, and her childhood wasn't easy either — her parents ignored her in favor of her brighter, quirkier sisters. (When Patty is date-raped at a high school party by the son of rich family friends, her mother's nonreaction to the news is quietly brutal.) Patty copes by drinking and smothering Joey and nursing a lingering crush on Walter's college roommate and best friend, an alt-rock musician named Richard Katz. (That friendship owes something — it's hard to say what exactly — to Franzen's with Wallace. Richard is a tobacco chewer too.)

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