Jonathan Franzen has scored one great title, The Corrections, and many that scream “don’t read me.” My favorite of those is How to Be Alone, from his 2002 collection of essays. Titles notwithstanding, Franzen is, in my opinion, the best living American novelist. Michael Chabon is more elegant on a sentence-by-sentence basis, and Richard Russo more warmly empathetic, but Franzen hits my intellect, my heart, and my thrill-seeking id equally. His novels are breakneck farces that feel absolutely true while always upping the “I can’t believe he went there” factor. His essays impress and depress the hell out of me – they’re so good I think I might as well never write again.
Franzen tends to get rave reviews that end with some vague caveat that drops him down a notch – the dings strike me as moral disapproval for his prickly intelligence. He’s great for making statements that are cheerfully taken out of context by the social media machine he despises. One current flap is about Franzen’s supposed misogyny, or at least his anti-feminism. Specifically, a male character in his new novel Purity is forced by his wife to urinate sitting down. In Frazenland, this can only be a bit of comedic excess, like when a character in Freedom dug into his own shit to find an engagement ring he’d swallowed. Twitter doesn’t allow for context or nuance, however, and Franzen is an easy target for those eager to feel slighted. He recently said he’d considered adopting an Iraqi war orphan, a perfect bit of self-flagellation that cries out for the context of a 10,000-word essay. One guess as to whether social media commenters are clamoring for that essay.
As Franzen said in his interview with Terry Gross, there’s not much he can say to anybody who won’t finish a book, let alone an essay. He’s depressed about a culture that lives and dies by the memebite, but he’s not changing his approach. I think the problem is that Franzen is so perceptive about what people think, we read his books and assume he knows us. When his characters behave poorly, we take it personally – why would the author do that to us? (Gross asked him if he thought a woman would really behave as one of his characters does; he said he was sure the character would have acted that way.) Franzen writes entertainingly unlikable characters, not an easy feat. He goes hard on society as a whole, but always hardest on himself, although that’s lost on memebiters.
My favorite part of the Terry Gross conversation was when she said Franzen’s latest author picture is surprising, because he’s smiling. She said he’s not known for his easygoing nature, and Franzen ruefully took that bait. To a certain extent, he doesn’t get why he’s perceived as excruciatingly serious, even dour; but like one of his characters, he broke that surface open and went further. Yes, of course he projects a certain image for a bunch of possible reasons. What he left unsaid, which a younger Franzen certainly would have exclaimed: “Why the fuck does everyone expect me to smile?”