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Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Franzen’

Freedom (2010)
Jonathan Franzen
Fourth Estate, 570pp

Was there a more anticipated novel in 2010 than Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom? It has been nine years since The Corrections made his name (or was it the furore with Oprah Winfrey that made his name?), and now Freedom is upon us, Franzen once again provokes controversy: his book had to withdrawn and pulped following mistakes in printing in the UK; his glasses were stolen and held to ransom, leading to helicopter pursuit across Hyde Park; Jodi Picoult, amongst others, has complained that the critics praise white male authors, and ignore female writers almost entirely (and she is correct) whilst Oprah Winfrey seems to have forgiven him and put his new novel on her book club lists; he has been on Time Magazine, and is said to have written “The Great American Novel.” Barack Obama even read it on holiday. It has led to one critic to coin the term Franzenfreude. So the big question has to be: is it any good? With a resounding, and almost entirely universal voice, we can scream “Hell Yes!”

The Berglund family are at the core of this novel: Walter meets Patty at university, where she is in love with both him and his best friend, the future rock star Richard Katz. On a road trip across America, Patty propositions Richard, but he tells her to go be with Walter. Over the next few decades, Walter and Patty have children, and Richard drifts in and out of their lives. Walter becomes ecologically obsessed, and uses his work to attempt to create a wildlife reserve in West Virginia, whilst his Indian assistant falls in love with him. His son, meanwhile, is engaged but trying not to cheat on his future wife, and selling dodgy vehicle parts to the US Military in Iraq. These brief apercu’s give only a small insight into events in Freedom. What Jonathan Franzen does in this masterly novel, is highlight a number of concerns to American way of life, and explore them through this one family. His format allows him to come closer to exploring what it is to be American family in the twenty-first century than any other writer.

Freedom is not without its flaws: the sections comprised of Patty’s diaries are a little too artificial, and some of the secondary characters remain a little distant, including the Berglund’s daughter, Jessica. These are but small quibbles in a book that is provocative, entertaining and extremely well crafted. I suspect, along with The Corrections, that Franzen has written two novels that will last, and be read a hundred years from now (that’s if people still read then!)

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How To Be Alone (2002)

Jonathan Franzen

Fourth Estate, 278pp

Jonathan Franzen is one of the wunderkinds of modern American letters.  Justly praised for his 2001 novel, The Corrections, he nevertheless became the subject of much criticism when that novel was selected for the Oprah Winfrey book club only to have his inclusion rescinded when he expressed doubts about it.  He was also targeted because, in 1996, in Harpers Magazine, he had published an essay entitled Perchance to Dream (now renamed Why Bother?) in which he posed a number of question about the purpose of fiction in the present day and seemed to have promised that his next novel would be “a big social novel that would engaged with mainstream culture and rejuvenate American literature” and critics wondered if he had achieved it with The Corrections.  Following the furore Franzen saw fit to release that original essay with a collection of other essays (including one about the Oprah fiasco) with the intention, it seems, of setting the record straight, to “Make clear what I had said and what I hadn’t said”.

Reading How To Be Alone in this light, one is forced to constantly ask the question: what is Franzen’s intent?  Has he set the record straight?  There are thirteen essays that make up this book and they cover subjects disparate as writing, the American prison system, tobacco companies, advertising and the Chicago postal service.  One phrase crops up frequently in the first 100 or so pages and it is where the title comes from, as Franzen meditates upon the nature of solitude, of trying to find a quiet corner in a crazy world.  There are moments of rage, of disgust, of misunderstand, of alienation.  As with all the best essays, his discourse wanders – in one essay he will take in the gentrification of a suburb, encyclopaedias, sewers, rock stars, historical city development and the status of a city surrounded by wilderness.  His knowledge is wide, his scope epic.  Nobody could accuse Franzen of myopia.

As is the way with all such essay collections, How To Be Alone does not always work.  Erika Imports is much too slight to make any impact, and Books in Bed fails to get into the depth of its subject.  When it works, though, it works exceptionally well.

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