One of America’s greatest living novelists

The man on the cover of Time
magazine looked out of place. His tidy demeanour – sensible spectacles, neatly
ironed shirt, a far from unruly degree of stubble – was undermined by the
awkward, somewhat unsettled expression on his face. His was the look of an
audience member who has crept out of a theatre mid-performance, taken a wrong
turn into the backstage gloom and, expecting to encounter the cool porcelain of
the urinal, found himself faced instead with the unforgiving scrutiny of a
packed house. It was the look of a man who is thinking, “What the hell am I
doing here?”

Well might he wonder. The man in
the picture is Jonathan Franzen, a 51-year-old Chicago-born writer – or, as
Time’s headline insists, a “Great American Novelist”. In the 87-year history of
Time, only a handful of US novelists have graced its cover: among them J D
Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison and John Updike (twice).
The last living specimen to make the grade was Stephen King, a full 10 years
ago. Those writers produced at least one work of fiction that became something
more than a book that took on the stubborn significance of a cultural monument
that etched its author’s name into the history of American letters. What has
Franzen done – a writer from whom we’ve heard barely a peep since his dazzling
2001 portrait of a disintegrating family, The Corrections, tickled critics,
seduced readers and went on to sell more than 2.85million copies worldwide – to
find himself in such lofty company?

The answer lies in Freedom,
Franzen’s fourth novel, and his first since The Corrections which comes out in
the US this month and is already being greeted as the literary event of the new
decade. Even Michiko Kakutani, fearsome critic of The New York Times and a
woman notorious for being about as generous with her praise as Ebenezer Scrooge
was with his cash, has declared it “an indelible portrait of our time”.

So what is all the fuss about?
Freedom is at once a lavishly entertaining account of a family at war with
itself, and a brilliant dissection of the dissatisfactions and disappointments
of contemporary American life. At its heart are the Berglunds, Walter and
Patty, a middle-class mid-western couple: he’s a lawyer, she’s a housewife and
former Varsity basketball star. Like the Lamberts in The Corrections, the
Berglunds have everything going for them – privilege, popularity, education,
money, marriage, kids – and yet somehow contrive to fashion from their lives,
and those of their children, Joey and Jessica, a million types of misery and
rage.

The narrative swoops back and forth
through the years between 1960 and 2010, poking its beak into the fault lines
between Patty and Walter, fault lines forced wider by the presence of a
would-be rock star named Richard Katz, who both Patty and Walter love in
different and damaging ways. In careful, compelling sentences, it roots out the
contradictions between their thoughts and their behaviour, their past and
present selves, moving always with the apparent ease of a bird in flight.

One moment, its gaze is intensely
intimate, homing in on one of Walter’s secret desires, “imperfectly hidden at
the back of his mind”. Other times, it will take us to a vantage point from
which we can appreciate the ridiculous gulf between the small worries that
these characters spend an inordinate amount of time fretting about (“Was it
possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working
full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did
this have to be done in the morning?”) and the big ones that we all do our best
to ignore (“WE ARE ADDING THIRTEEN MILLION HUMAN BEINGS TO THE POPULATION EVERY
MONTH!”).

Where The Corrections took pleasure
in its characters’ disasters – its presiding image, played for laughs, was that
of Alfred, the Lambert patriarch brought low by dementia, rootling around in
his own excrement before plunging off the side of a cruise ship, a comic blur
glimpsed through a porthole – Freedom, though frequently funny, is ultimately
tender: its emotional currency is both the pain and the pleasure that that word
implies. Franzen’s characters still fail here, and fail spectacularly, but the
writer’s final instinct, having given complex life to the Berglunds, is now to
catch them when they fall, to forgive even their most monstrous qualities,
where once he would have mocked.

The whole package, unashamedly
generous of heft (it weighs in at over 550 pages) and heart, adds up to a rare
pleasure, an irresistible invitation to binge-read, to devote the kind of time
to a book that we tend more often these days to reserve only for work, sleep,
or marathon viewing sessions of DVD box-sets. That it also grapples with a
fundamental dilemma of modern middle-class America – namely: Is it really still
OK to spend your life asserting your unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness,
when the rest of the world is in such a state? – is what makes it something
wonderful.

If Freedom doesn’t qualify as a
Great American Novel for our time, then I don’t know what would. When novelist
William DeForest coined that dreadful phrase back in 1868, in an essay for The
Nation in which he agonised over the relative merits of Nathaniel Hawthorne and
Harriet Beecher Stowe, he defined it as the achievement of “painting the
American soul within the framework of a novel”.

In the nine years since The
Corrections was published, the American soul has been bothered in ways that
nobody could have seen coming – the Twin Towers were brought down; Bush invaded
Iraq; the global economy fell off a cliff; America elected its first black
president. And so, too, have the ways of representing it. Young American
novelists such as Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers and David
Foster Wallace, a close friend of Franzen’s who committed suicide in 2008 and
whose name appears without fanfare in Freedom’s list of acknowledgements, have
mostly turned their back on the conventional “framework of a novel”, seeking
more experimental ways of representation – a fractured mirror with which to
reflect their fractured times – or else turned their eye to resolutely
small-scale narratives, or non-fiction.

Franzen is the exception. The
reason to celebrate him is not that he is doing something new but that he is
doing something old, presumed dead – and doing it brilliantly. Freedom bids for
a place alongside the great achievements of his predecessors, not his
contemporaries; it belongs on the same shelf as John Updike’s Rabbit, Tom
Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. It is the
first Great American Novel of the post-Obama era.

A man who insists on writing his
books on an old computer, unconnected to the internet, and whose maladroitness
with the media once resulted in him get himself disinvited from Oprah Winfrey’s
Book Club, Franzen is in many ways a man out of time. But he proves that whatever
else has been swept away in the past few years, rumours of the literary novel’s
demise were exaggerated. Welcome back, Jonathan Franzen.

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