by Adam Reger
Jonathan Franzen interviewed by the AV Club here. Two of my favorite things, finally joined. His new novel, Freedom, is receiving glowing reviews. I’m bending in my position of resigning myself to waiting a year ’til the paperback comes out . . . and have just added my name to the surely long waiting list at the Carnegie Library. From the interview alone, though, one gets a sense of the scope of the novel and its ambition. You can also get a clear sense of Franzen as a thoughtful writer, grappling with significant issues: freedom, clearly, and what it means in the current American context, but also slightly meta concerns such as hooking and keeping readers. His take on it is, as with most things, unimpeachable: that it’s the writer’s job to produce work so compelling the reader turns away from cable, YouTube, video games, etc., etc. in order to read the book. Period.
In what limited press and review materials I’ve read from this novel’s publicity push, Franzen has come off as a more likeable person. Having read both How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone, I got the clear sense that he’s a warm and funny person but that there’s a thin shell of reserve that can come off as chilly. Even reading this interview, the number of long pauses put me in mind of television appearances where his stoic face, those thick-framed glasses, that arrogant stubble(! I don’t know where that came from; I’m just going to go with it), made him come off as detached, a snob. Knowing he went to Swarthmore College, and possessing just enough knowledge of the place to form some key assumptions, probably doesn’t help. (I grew up one town over from Swarthmore.) Franzen seems, in general, the opposite side of the coin of his friend David Foster Wallace, who possessed a formidable intellect but seemed always to take pains to be self-deprecating and to connect to his audience. This is an observation, though, that suggests the folly of thinking you “really know” a public figure based on his/her writings and televised appearances.
Addendum: I forgot about this, or perhaps I never fully noticed, but I guess there was a small “feud” surrounding Franzen and Freedom when the writers Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner both complained about all the press. It was one of those annoying one-sided feuds that shouldn’t be called a “feud” because, well, you wouldn’t call mosquitoes buzzing around your ear a feud. But there’s a good rundown and, indeed, takedown by Lisa Solod at Open Salon (I guess a branch of Salon where people can post their own stuff? Don’t let that keep you away, though: the writing and reasoning are both Salon-quality.).